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Horizons marins, itinéraires spirituels (Ve-XVIIIe siècles). Volume II.

Henri Dubois
Jean-Claude Hocquet
André Vauchez

Marins, voyageurs et missionnaires

The manning of English fighting ships c. 1550-1650

G.V. Scammell

Texte intégral

1The century after 1550 saw the emergence of England as one of Europe’s most formidable maritime powers. The country’s success against the attempted Spanish invasion of 1588 convinced the Venetians that its seamen were « grandissimi guerrieri», whilst some years later an enthusiastic compatriot thought them «the absolutest under heaven in their profession». A large state navy was established by Henry VIII, re-appearing, after varying fortunes, in the mid-seventeenth century as the most powerful in Europe. A vigorous privateering war was carried on against the Iberian maritime empires from roughly 1570 till the death of Elizabeth, and with a similar intensity in 1625-1630, with France now added to the list of enemies. Then, in the mid-1600s, the England of Oliver Cromwell was locked with Holland in one of the most hotly contested naval wars Europe had so far witnessed, demanding resources in manpower and shipping on an hitherto unequalled scale. Meanwhile English overseas trade — in effect the export of woollen cloths — was in difficulties, deflecting capital, men and energies into a search for new opportunities. And of these there were few more attractive than the potential wealth offered by the rich commerce flowing to Europe from the newly-established Iberian overseas empires. It was, moreover, to an increasingly intransigent and influential Protestant element in England, the very life-blood of their archenemy, Catholic Spain. The diversion of these riches into English hands was at once sound strategy and a godly duty.

2The pursuit of such wealth, the attempted implementation of such ambitions, and the development of ever more grandiose naval pretensions entailed more ships and more voyages, and these now often longer and more hazardous. Hence a demand for seamen far beyond the ability of England, or any other contemporary state, to meet. And for the English the problem was particularly acute since their success in privateering convinced them of the merits of those heavily-built and lavishly-manned vessels such operations demanded. Thus the apparent paradox that whilst publicists were bemoaning that their country was overburdened with people — as indeed it probably was — and whilst ingenious schemes were aired for disposing of the undesirable surplus, ships were consistently under-manned or inadequately manned. The numbers required are astonishing to modern eyes, with at least 13,000 men needed for a mere 65,000 tons of shipping in 1582. Lavish complements were embarked in the expectation (accordingly rendered self-fulfilling) that disease would soon kill many. Ships, furthermore, were generously manned for action, which in general meant boarding an opponent, when numbers were vital to success. Moreover, for voyages of any distance crews had to be capable not only of working their ships, but of repairing and maintaining them, which entailed carrying carpenters, caulkers and so on. Then with gear so heavy and cumbersome, and with mechanical aids few and inefficient, routine operations like hoisting sail or weighing anchor required superabundant manpower. But more was involved than necessity. The social ethos of the time, with a man’s standing reflected by the number of those in his service, meant that not only had men of birth to be accompanied by their retinues, but that the growing body of officers, whether master gunners or chief cooks, also had to have their mates and underlings.

3Hence ships were consistently short of crews of the size considered appropriate to them, or forced to make do with what were described as «boys or infirm persons». And not surprisingly. The seaman’s life was by its very nature hard, dangerous and commonly short. Nor of such men as there were were many available for, or willing to sail in fighting ships, least of all those belonging to the state. Some were in foreign service, either involuntarily as captives, or by choice governed by anything from religious convictions to hopes of better pay. But whatever the reason, English seamen reputedly manned foreign ships on such a scale that a fleet patrolling the Channel in the 1630s could expect to find them in almost any vessel it stopped. Not that such behaviour was peculiarly English. Crews everywhere were in some degree made up from men of assorted race and colour, with Dutch, Greek, Indian, Amerindian and African hands serving in Tudor and Stuart vessels and so partially redressing the shortage of native seamen.

4Basically, however, English fighting ships were short of men since they demanded them in such vast numbers and, other than privateers, offered them so little. Conditions afloat were notoriously hard. Nowhere, however, were they harder than in state ships. Commanders, especially under the first Stuart kings, regularly complained that their vessels were «infested and noisome», their men unfed, unpaid, unclothed, and if put ashore sick, like as not left to die by their fellow countrymen. Clearly this was no life for those who looked to the sea for wealth and opportunity. For such there were the privateers which made up the greater part of the maritime forces deployed against an enemy. In these bonuses were paid to inspire zeal in the discovery and taking of prizes, and men where sustained by hopes of a share in some magnificent haul. Reality frequently failed to come up to expectations, but with luck and the right commander the rewards could be imposing. The capture of the Portuguese Indiaman São Felipe (1587) yielded loot worth about 10% of England’s annual imports at the time. Only with the taking of the Madre de Deus (1592) were figures of this order again reached before Cromwell’s ships intercepted and plundered the Spanish silver fleet. But even the remotest prospect of such wealth was sufficient to attract men.

5Yet whilst the ambitious and adventurous sailed in privateers, and whilst the ruthless or desperate turned to piracy, most seamen made a living in merchant or fishing vessels, and presumably, since so many remained with the sea all their working lives, what they considered a reasonable living. Naval officials repeatedly acknowledged that merchantmen and the fisheries could attract all the available hands, leaving nothing for the state. The life of the merchant seaman was certainly hard, though probably no harder for the mass of mankind than much of life ashore. It had, moreover, considerable attractions. With any luck voyages were free from the violence and bloodshed of war. More important, the sea offered perhaps the only career truly open to talent, with men able to rise in the world without the advantages of inherited wealth, position or connections. Crews could profit from involvement, legal or otherwise, in trade, and from the casual earnings their calling allowed. Capital so accumulated could bring social advancement, and at the very least men could expect to be discharged at the end of a voyage with a reasonable prospect of being paid, and this at a far better rate than that supposedly prevailing in crown or state vessels. Throughout the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries commanders and naval administrators pointed out that royal ships failed to hold their crews because the pay was so poor — as indeed it was, with some senior deck officers paid 100% less than their civilian equivalents. There was admittedly some spasmodic talk of improving things in state ships, but the usual story was that if complements were paid at all — which was rarely the case — then it would be little or late. Nor did the fall of the Stuart monarchy bring any improvement. Robert Blake returned from the Mediterranean in 1655, with his men (like their dependents) unpaid after nearly two years. The government’s response was to order the ships to be kept at sea to put off the day of reckoning.

6Wages were sometimes witheld in the hope of discouraging desertion — it being argued that crews would stay on board whilst there was still some prospect of pay. At other times they were refused on the grounds that men would have already looted and embezzled more than their due. But usually there were no wages because there was no money. Fleets were bigger — 50 men of war in 1547; 200 just over a century later — naval commitments more extensive, naval policies increasingly ambitious, and naval administration before the mid-seventeenth century notoriously more corrupt and inefficient. The building, operation and maintenance of a navy now required money in amounts it was rarely politically possible or expedient to demand. Certainly Elizabeth pressed ever harder on her subjects for ships, or for cash instead. At the same time she steadily shifted the burden from the maritime counties, on which it had traditionally fallen, to the country as a whole, and from the 1590s was in effect regularly exacting a tax. Such policies, and more radical projects prudently shelved, provoked unrest and opposition. There were damaging and dangerous clashes on «Ship money» under Charles I, and the problem similarly defeated the Cromwellian government. Its aggressive policies cost it more: its stringent taxation alienated vital support, and in the end it was left with impossible liabilities. At its height the war against the Dutch cost nearly 50% more than the total revenues of the late king, and already in 1652 it took roughly £ 1,000,000 to get the requisite fleets to sea, all of which had to be met from an allocation of less than half that amount.

7Hence it was that the state — and even at times privateers — had to consider how else men could be recruited. There were hopes that suitable legislation would increase the country’s stock of seamen. So a series of navigation acts, stemming from a venerable tradition, was enacted, culminating in that of 1651. Amongst other things these obliged merchants to use native vessels in specified circumstances, thereby increasing — or at least it was assumed — the country’s resources in ships and mariners. Under Elizabeth there were thoughts of banning vessels which required only a few hands. For the «maintenance and increase of the navy» the eating of fish was made obligatory (1564) once a week, re-inforced by various other measures to stimulate the sea fisheries, commonly idealized as a «nursery of seamen». Meanwhile fertile minds engendered ingenious schemes which would simultaneously solve social problems at home and bring the country strength at sea. Propagandists of empire argued that the colonization of North America would produce new trades, which in turn would create a demand for shipping and hence for seamen. Others, notably the government of Henry VIII, thought that potential troublemakers could be rounded up to serve as galley oarsmen. So the intractable problem of manning was absorbed into the far-ranging discussions of social and economic ills which marked the hard century after roughly 1550. Under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, with the issue of manpower even more urgent, further, and occasionally remarkably perceptive solutions were proposed, amongst them the introduction of some form of continuous service.

8At the same time there were attempts to remove, or at least alleviate, the most obnoxious features of life at sea, chiefly inspired, no doubt, by the dangerous legacy of the sick, wounded and mutilated from the long wars of the late-sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries. Rudimentary provision was made for those ill or disabled, previously left to their own devices. From 1587 deductions were made from seamen’s wages to endow a charity (The Chatham Chest) for the benefit of their aged and wounded colleagues. But once again it was the Cromwellian state that took the boldest steps. Pay was increased, bonuses were offered for the capture of prizes, medals were introduced as rewards for gallantry, and the wounded were to have modest gratuities, as were the widows, orphans and dependents of the dead. All this was to be paid for out of the prize money previously taken by the Lord Admiral.

9Even so, the commonest and most effective way of manning remained the ancient practice of impressment, the forcible selection, that is, of men — supposedly seamen — for state service. Under the pressure of events some minor administrative adjustments were made and others contemplated, but in essence the system remained as it had long been. Warrants to impress were sent from the Council to authorities in the maritime shires for distribution to local officers. These then enforced the press, their choice of victims largely determined by bribery and influence. Those pressed were eventually despatched to such places as the navy had specified, so that only when they arrived did commanders discover, usually to their disgust, what they were being offered.

10Nevertheless, through sheer necessity the tentacles of the press spread ever wider. Impressment was regularly employed to raise crews for the colonial expeditions launched under Elizabeth. By the time of the first Stuarts sweeping authority to press was granted to, or expected by commanders of ships and squadrons. Nor was it only ashore that crews were sought. Under Henry VIII prisoners taken from enemies at sea were used in privateers. In 1627 captains were empowered to recruit «as best they may» out of passing vessels, which they did with indiscriminate zeal, seizing men from any ships, English or foreign they could manage to catch. Next, fleets took to stationing themselves strategically for this very purpose, waiting for example (1636) in the Thames approaches «to press men out of colliers and other merchant ships». By 1653 Cromwell’s navy was reduced to lying off ports to take the crews of homeward-bound vessels, and now so desperate was the state of affairs that whilst one admiral was escorting a convoy of colliers into London another attacked them, guns firing, to press their men.

11Even without such incidents the system left much to be desired. Owners, many of them shipmasters, did their uttermost to hold onto crews vital to the operation of the vessels which gave them their living. Officials enforcing the press saw it more as a way of enriching themselves than arming the state, so that victims who could pay were set free, whilst to «pleasure friends» seasoned mariners were exempted and useless substitutes foisted on the navy. Captains, moreover, rarely conscious of any duty to the state, commonly discharged many of those who eventually reached them, appropriating their pay or sharing it with their fellow officers. Meanwhile urban and parochial officials often as not saw the press as a heaven-sent opportunity to rid their localities of the unemployed and undesirable. And even if the men eventually sent were fit and able they frequently arrived on board «unarmed and naked» as prudent local worthies avoided burdening themselves and their fellows with needless expense.

12Ships were consequently under-manned, or sent to sea with crews inadequate either through physical unsuitability or lack of experience. That this was long and regularly the case reflects the feeble administrative resources of the early-modern state, heavily dependent on the services of unpaid officials who commonly discharged their duties in ways best calculated to benefit themselves either financially or politically. It further demonstrates, as does the history of taxation, that though governments might endeavour to discover the extent of their potential resources — with a series of surveys of mariners commencing in the 1530s — they well realized the dangers of attempting to exploit them to the full.

13Indiscriminate modes of recruitment, and the press in particular, inevitably brought together bodies of men far from reconciled to their lot, the more so since they were inadequately fed and clothed, unpaid, and without any prospect of release. Amongst crews arbitrarily assembled, often sick, and cooped up in evil-conditioned and strictly confined quarters, tempers flared and violence and mutiny were commonplace. Hence it was that standing orders, especially for lengthy voyages, were so largely taken up with attempts to remove the sources of friction or worse. Regular attendance at prayers was prescribed and crews were denied such inflammatory pleasures as drinking, swearing and gambling. All the same, mutinies were so frequent that commanders reported their absence as a matter of wonder. Nor were vessels under officers as forceful and effective as Francis Drake spared, whilst in the 1620s a spate of mutinies in ships in royal service drove not only individual craft, but on occasions whole squadrons off their stations. In 1626, and again the following year, mutineers came ashore and marched on London where troops were turned out to face them, just as the cavalry was let loose on their successors in the days of the Puritan republic.

14Of the other misdeeds, real or imagined, of seamen there is abundant evidence. Contemporary records are full of stories of desertion, brawling, fighting, insubordination, cowardice and gratuitous violence and brutality of every sort from the torturing of living creatures for sport to the coldblooded abandoning of fellow humans to drown. Hardly surprisingly the century witnessed the reputation of sailors — admittedly never very high — perhaps sink to its nadir. Men of letters and disgruntled commanders vied with one another in vituperative condemnation. The unruly conduct of seamen terrified honest persons ashore and brought disaster at sea. They were as «voyde of reason as of obedyence», mere «baptized beasts». It might, however, be suspected that it was less that sailors had changed for the worse than that landsmen were now more aware of them as from the 1590s they impinged more widely and more forcibly on society. Thrown out of work as wars ended or campaigns flagged they joined those bands of the destitute roaming the kingdom, or congregated in ports where, as the authorities complained, they sought a living by robbery and piracy. Moreover, even when in service they frequently marched through the countryside, terrorizing its inhabitants and threatening to assault the seat of government itself in London in their desperate search for food and wages. And now their numbers, actual or potential, were sufficient for them to be identified by their social superiors as yet another sub-species of «the inferior multitude» — the lower orders — the perils of whose discontent and hostility they already so keenly appreciated.

15Yet had things been so consistently bad at sea as our records — naturally more concerned with folly and disaster than uneventful routine—suggest, few actions would ever have been begun, let alone brought to a satisfactory conclusion. There is certainly no lack of material to show seamen in the most unfavourable light. But the same sources often reveal them acting with resource and fighting with skill and determination. Moreover, amongst their numbers was a substantial minority of the able, ambitious and enterprising, pursuing those opportunities which life at sea offered — notably the chance for those with little or nothing to recommend them other than their natural talents to get on in the world. The sea was selective in that it rarely allowed the incompetent to make the same mistake twice. In general the skills it demanded required little formal education, and with luck some of this might be acquired — or such seems to be the implication of injunctions that both apprentices and «young mariners» should be taught navigation. So, and particularly in privateering, many famous names came up from nothing to fame and rank — witness the career of Francis Drake — whilst others less celebrated reached wealth and respectability. Furthermore, even those who failed to achieve the heights might at least obtain some position in a rapidly expanding hierarchy of subordinate ranks. Longer voyages, the growing importance alike of celestial navigation and artillery, uninterrupted periods of war, all stimulated the proliferation of specialized skills, of which some 40 are listed in the 1620s. How, other than by force, seamen were recruited, and from what classes of society they came, cannot be explored here. It might, however, be noticed that for some the sea was now a hereditary calling. And it might be further noticed that service in both fighting ships and merchantmen was a powerful stimulus to mobility in the widest sense of the word. On the one hand men might obtain better positions for themselves in the world, and on the other they were commonly drawn by the temptations and opportunities of the sea from the countryside to the ports, and from the provincial ports to the capital.

16Amongst officers of the highest ranks — admirals, captains — the professionalism now apparent in some of their crews emerged more slowly. Other than in privateers they were commonly members of the aristocracy and gentry, even after the fall of the monarchy, this being necessary, it was widely agreed, to ensure the loyalty and obedience of their men. Deck officers—masters, mates, bosuns — were usually seasoned mariners, hired for privateers, but impressed, if circumstances demanded, for men-of-war. Most had spent the greater part of their working lives in merchantmen, but there was now also an important minority whose careers had been exclusively in state ships. Then there was a rich assortment of those who might roughly be lumped together as officers and petty officers — 60 out of a total complement of 121 in a privateer of 1582. Some, like the chief trumpeter and «his noise» scarcely seem to qualify to modern eyes, but others are easily recognizable and many, like the master gunner, were men of consequence.

17More ambitious naval policies, and more warships at sea, brought the embarrassing corollary of a shortage of those suitably qualified by rank, if not by skill, to officer them. Under Henry VIII what were described as «serving men» and yeomen had to be given commands. By the end of the century there were fears lest, contrary to all right order, ships should be entrusted to bosuns and those dismissed as «meckanick men that have been bred up from swabbers». By the early 1600s it was even necessary to employ erstwhile pirates. Yet the very growth of a fleet, straining though it did the state’s ability to provide it with sufficient numbers of suitable officers and men, brought at the same time a new and welcome field of patronage. Appointments, even to the humblest posts, allowed the government to re-imburse its creditors and reward its adherents—like that galaxy of fellow Scots given commands under the early Stuarts. Such preferments were highly esteemed. Incumbents filled their own and other ships with clients, relatives and those able to proffer appropriate inducements. Hence putative officers — captains especially — lobbied the influential in their own or their friends’ interest, offering them cash or shares in expected loot.

18Under the later Tudors a substantial body of patrician admirals and captains held naval and privateering commands. Many, however, were from shipowning dynasties like the Howards with a long tradition of involvement in maritime affairs. But alongside them, and often overshadowing them, was a growing and increasingly influential group of families — Gonson, Hawkins, Fenner, for instance — usually of mercantile or seafaring origins, who owned ships, commanded fleets and spent much of their lives in naval service or administration. The trend was reversed by the first two Stuarts, when «gentlemen officers» were once again particularly prominent. This largely reflects the impact of royal patronage, re-inforced by Charles I’s desire «to breed up his nobility to give them encouragement to take a liking to the sea». So would command be kept in the right hands.

19The fall of the monarchy brought changes which were to have profound and enduring repercussions. The Cromwellian regime, uncertainly installed in power, needed officers who whilst politically reliable were nevertheless acceptable to the enduring radicalism of its armed forces. Moreover, in view of its ambitions and the quality of its opponents — notably the Dutch — it needed large numbers of men of proven parts at short notice. Some were recruited from former servants of the Stuarts. But the most distinguished were from the ranks of those whose successful campaigns on land — witness Robert Blake — indicated to a military government their suitability for command at sea. Hence the appearance of the Cromwellian Generals et Sea who were to have so powerful an influence on the development of naval tactics, with Monck and Deane responsible for the more effective deployment of ships and artillery in action.

20By this date a class of naval officers was firmly established. Its members were recruited from gentry and mercantile families, with a sprinkling of «tarpaulins» promoted from the lower deck. Many were highly literate — like the university-educated Blake — and many wrote extensively on a wide variety of themes. The sea was often a calling in which they were engaged for the whole of their professional lives, just as it was a calling in which sons followed in the steps of fathers and grandfathers. And where one member of a family served, so like as not did his relatives too, kinship being the best guarantee of loyalty and reliability. Hence in the 1650s six of General Blake’s relatives were in charge of ships.

21Parallel with the emergence of an officer class came the growth of an accepted code of professional conduct. The authority of captains (as indeed of masters in merchantmen) over their crews became virtually absolute, reflecting in part the long periods of time during which they were now totally out of contact with the mother country. But equally it was no longer acceptable that men so empowered should behave in the idiosyncratic way of a Drake, breaking formation to gain a prize, or conducting themselves «more for profit than for service». Officers, as a code drawn up for the Cromwellian navy reveals, were expected to show themselves bold, loyal and reliable leaders. They were not to seek fees for discharging the duties entrusted to them. In action they were to encourage their men in person, and should they attempt to surrender, or fail to pursue an enemy, they would be put to death.

  • 1 Full references are given in my articles «Shipowning in the economy and politics of early modern En (...)

22From this cursory survey of the manning of English fighting ships in the century after 1550 we can see the administrative and political fragility of the early-modern state and the intolerable stresses placed on it by war. It was war that was directly responsible for the fall of the Stuart monarchy, and indirectly for that of the Cromwellian regime. Yet long periods of war simultaneously stimulated the professionalisation of those armed forces which were eventually to be so powerful in extending the influence of the state. And war stimulated, as with the ad hoc machinery established to recruit and feed men, a measure of administrative growth. But most remarkably the wars of this period demonstrate, as indeed do those of most others, how much can be achieved with notoriously inadequate resources1

Notes de fin

1 Full references are given in my articles «Shipowning in the economy and politics of early modern England», The Historical Journal, XV, 3 (1972), 385ff; «Manning the English merchant service in the sixteenth century», The Mariner’s Mirror, 56, 2 (1970), 131ff; and «European seamanship in the great age of discovery», The Mariner’s Mirror, 68, 4 (1982), 357ff. A more extended treatment will be provided in my forthcoming book on The genesis of British seapower.


Pembroke College
University of Cambridge

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1987

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