The Birth of the English Navy

If I asked you what you think of when I say the word ‘Viking,’ you’d probably think of a Viking warship. You’d know that it looks curly and has a very specific look to it. You know that the people who rode them might have worn helmets with horns. But the real question we never ask ourselves is: why were they riding the seas? And why did this make them famous?

Let’s step outside of history for a moment. Let’s say we live in a cold, harsh place and every year it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce food for our children. However, we know that not too far away is an island rich in soil for food, open land to set up homes, and easy access to mainland Europe. Obviously, we are going to pack our bags and move there, especially if it’s our only option.

The Vikings, however, did not come as peacefully as you might be picturing. In fact, the first records of Viking raids on ancient Britain and France are documented in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle circa 787 A.D. as follows:

And in [King Beohtric’s] days came for the first time three ships: and then the reeve rode thither and tried to compel them to go to the royal manor, for he did not know what they were, and they slew him. These were the first ships of the Danes to come to England.”

By the 830s, the raids on England had become intense. Historically, we do not know exactly why the sudden raids became so violent (and… well, sudden). Some reasons could include overpopulation in Scandinavian regions, wars within their own territories (which resulted in mandatory exiles and ‘adventurers’ hoping to escape that), and new naval technology (the true keel), which allowed for longer ocean voyages. The seas also attracted the less-attractive constituents of society, being that increased trade by sea meant an increase in piracy.

Obviously, as the King of Wessex (later called England), King Alfred had to do something. If anyone would be able to do anything, it would have been him. Unlike most royals of his time, he had a thirst for knowledge. Even as a child, he had always been a curious researcher of things that made him ask ‘how’ and ‘why.’ It is perhaps for this reason that he successfully reorganised the military of his kingdom.

Royalty in the 800s was not as it is today. King Alfred and his ancestors and heirs were warriors that wore uniforms and rode horses and lived inside cold, dark castles designed to keep the realm’s most important figures safe. This is a very different sense of ‘royalty’ as experienced by his 32nd great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, whose role has been reduced to a symbolic figurehead of English constitutional democracy. Although, we must consider some aligning facts that make her worthy of becoming the second monarch to take the epithet ‘The Great.’ She is the second longest-serving sovereign in history, a chunk of Antarctica is named after her, she just broke champagne on England’s largest aircraft carrier yet, she is the last surviving head-of-state to have served in World War II, and most importantly – she is the latest Bond girl credited on IMDB.

Having the sole job of sitting down and pondering ways to better England and protect her from her enemies was beneficial to Alfred, being that he had a brilliant and cunningly strategic mind.

The main thing he realized was that if his people were being attacked by sea, then the sea is where his people needed to focus. And thus, the ancestor to the Royal Navy was conceived and born.

Along with his desires to create a fleet of ships to protect his kingdom, he created the burghal hidage. This was a series of fortified towns along the rivers and pre-existing roads (built by ancient Romans) of Wessex. Picture thirty-something versions of the Village of Bree from The Lord of the Rings – each one close enough to send help to another that might need immediate help.

The Alfredian Navy and the Burghal Hidage were both major parts of Alfred’s design to refortify the kingdom. They might seem like simple fixes, but they had never been accomplished before. And if they had been former ideas, they had not been conducted successfully. Most importantly, they robbed the Vikings of two major pieces of their strategy: surprise, and mobility.

Along with the conception of the general idea of creating a fleet, Alfred himself designed it. In 896, he ordered the construction of a dozen or less ships. His ships were to have 60 oars – making them twice the size of Viking warships. However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler is clearly biased (and very excited) in his opinion of the fleet:

“King Alfred had…long ships‟ built to oppose the Danish warships. They were almost twice as long as the others. Some had 60 oars, some more. They were both swifter and steadier and also higher than the others. They were built neither on the Frisian nor the Danish pattern, but as it seemed to him himself that they could be most useful.”

A ship built to the design of Alfred the Great by Dan Escott.

A ship built to the design of Alfred the Great by Dan Escott.

It was important for The King to design larger ships. Back then, warships did not serve to kill, but instead carry as many troops as possible. In contrast to the enormous battleships we have today, ships back then would come alongside an enemy vessel and climb aboard to tackle the enemy by sword or hand.

A visual depiction of a Danish ship clashing with one of Alfred's new English ships. Edited painting by A. Forrester.

A visual depiction of a Danish ship clashing with one of Alfred’s new English ships. Edited painting by A. Forrester.

Ultimately, Alfredian ships were too big to maneuver easily in the waters where any battles would occur.

The first naval engagement in English history occurred in the year 897 – testing Alfred’s new fleet, which was also completely new in design. About six Danish Viking ships were beached, perhaps to replenish them with food. Nine English ships then emerged from the distance and attacked the Danes. According to an edited excerpt from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Then the king (Alfred) ordered [his men] to put out with nine of the new ships, and they blocked off to them [the Danes/Vikings] the harbour entrance from in front of the outer bay. Then they [Danes] came out against them [English] with three ships. And three [Danish ships] were in the upper part of the harbour on dry land…then they [the English] captured two of the three ships at the outside of the harbour entrance and massacred the crews. And one [Danish ship] made its escape, and on that, too, the men were killed except for five, those [five] got away because the ships [of the English] were grounded.”[1]

In summary, the English blocked the Danes’ exit from the bay, and had won their first battle on the sea by advancing on them from there. However, it seems to have been a messy occasion. One ship is credited to have escaped. The reason behind that is mostly because, as mentioned, the ships were too large to maneuver. Ultimately, we can view the Vikings in this light sort of like pirates because of the way that they attacked their enemy at sea. Although it’s not as organized as Johnny Depp might go about it, it’s still the same concept of climbing onboard and taking control.

Although Alfred is considered the ‘father of the navy,’ he was not the founder of The Royal Navy – which wouldn’t exist until the 1500s – and whose power would not be demonstrated at least until the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The creation of the navy during this military reform was vital to the success of England during the reigns of Alfred’s successors. And although we do not know many facts about this era in history, but what we do know is that the establishment of a navy and of a fleet unique in design shows us the power of King Alfred and his willingness to explore new options to protect his people.

[1] Ryan Lavelle. Alfred’s Wars: Sources and Interpretations of Anglo-Saxon Warfare in the Viking Age. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012. Print.

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2 thoughts on “The Birth of the English Navy

  1. Pingback: A List of Posts by Monarch | ROOTS OF EXCALIBUR

  2. Pingback: The Late-Saxon Navy | Weapons and Warfare

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