The English Navy 1649-1815

  By Winterhaze13, July 2006; Revised


The British Empire relied on its military and economic strength to further its aim. This process largely began after the end of the English Civil War which pinned King against Parliament and ended with the dictatorship of a highly talented but authoritarian general Oliver Cromwell in 1649. At this time the navy began to develop, eventually it would become the most powerful in the world. It would rely on foreign trade by English merchants for its finance. And in return the navy would provide the English merchant class with access to foreign markets through war and coercion whenever needed. This paper will primarily deal with the development of the navy from the period 1649-1815, which is the subject of N.A.M Roger’s groundbreaking book, The Command of the Ocean. After studying the development of the English navy from 1649-1815, it is clear that it played a crucial role in establishing Great Britain as the foremost, military, economic and imperial power in the world by the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The development of the English Navy really took off under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, known as the Lord Protector of the English throne after the end of the civil wars in 1649.[1] At this time the now Protestant island nation began to rely on its navy as the source of their wealth and defence. Between 1646 and 1659 the navy grew by an outstanding 217 vessels: 111 captured and 106 were built.[2] After Cromwell’s death and the restoration of the Stuart Dynasty in 1660, the navy built another 25 battleships of the first, second and third classes.[3] But the development of the navy did not guarantee immediate success, especially considering that the Dutch remained the foremost navy power in the Atlantic.[4] After 1649, England fought three wars with the foremost naval power in Europe at the time, the United Provinces (The Netherlands). England’s main objective was to destroy Dutch trade and shipping and replace the Dutch as the leading maritime trading power.[5] The first two wars, which lasted between 1652-4 and 1665-7, produced relatively little progress on the trading front.[6] Ad the last war in 1672-4 was hardly decisive and ended with only modest gain for the English.[7] Therefore, the first half century of the “blue water” policy was relatively unproductive.

Under Charles II, who was instated as king in 1660, the “blue water” policy, as it is known was officially made policy.[8] Under this policy, commercial wealth and naval power became seen as “mutually sustaining”.[9] Flourishing trading that was fuelled by the English navy would provide funds in the form of customs revenue, as well as manpower would guard existing overseas markets , as well as under the expectation that this would lead to new markets.[10] This policy made much sense, since Great Britain was an island; a strong navy would almost surely secure them from attack by a continental power. However, this policy did have its limitations. When England found its self isolated, foreign invasion became a possibility, such as with Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. A large navy would usually mean a smaller army because of resource constraints; as a result Britain would need to rely on an allied power to fight on land.

There were some important developments in the navy in the period 1688-1714. For example, when William of Orange became King in 1689, the fate of the Admiralty was in flux. The commons and the admiralty were fighting over the control of the Royal navy.[11] Parliament was seeking to gain control of the navy because it was crucial to the religious and political freedom of the country.[12] In 1699, the Whigs fell from power and were replaced by a Tory government dominated by the admiralty.[13] After much infighting, in 1702, William gave the control of the navy to the Lord Admiral.[14] A couple of months later the post was given to Queen Anne’s husband Prince George who would hold the post until his death in 1708.[15] Largely unfamiliar with such dealings, Queen Anne and Prince George would yield much of the military policy in the war of Spanish Succession to a small cabinet dominated by Lord Godolphin and the hero of Blenheim the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill.[16] In 1713, because she lacked the military savvy of William III, Anne wisely proclaimed”…what force may be necessary for securing our commerce by sea…I leave entirely to my Parliament.”[17]

The development of the fleet between 1688-1714 was relatively considerable as Britain became more and more concerned with the political climate in Europe in this period.[18] Beginning in 1689, Britain launched an expansion of their fleet which increased the number of (First to Fourth Rate) ships from 100 to 131 in 1714 after the war with France.[19] The number of cruisers increased from only eight in 1689 to sixty-six in 1714.[20] The total increase in ships required the building of 159 new ships of the line and 113 new cruisers between 1691 and 1715, taking into account the casualties at war.[21] All of this was done despite the navies continual financial problems where they rarely received sufficient amounts to maintain their fleet from Parliament.[22] But this major expansion came at a large cost, after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the tax burden in England more then doubled, with the bulk being generated in the land tax.[23] England also relied on the customs tax and the excise tax to develop the navy, as well as other state ventures.[24] The customs tax would rise to 15 per cent in 1704-5, and eventually to 25 per cent in 1759.[25]

The War of Spanish Succession between 1701 and 1714 offers a good example of how crucial a role the English navy played in the development of Pax Britannica.[26] The aims of the “blue water” policy would re-emerge in the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century.[27] Many scholars argue that it is this war between Britain (with its Allies Austria and the Dutch) against France (with Spain) which solidified Britain’s as the dominant naval power.[28] The war arose when French King the great Louis XIV wished that his grandson the duc D’Anjou be appointed to the throne of Spain upon the death of the feeble King Carlos II, the last Hapsburg King of Spain.[29] But in the much broader scope, historians argue that this war was motivated by imperial ambitions by all belligerents, especially involving the predominantly French and Spanish domain of the Americas.[30]

The English navy played an important role in the War of Spanish succession. Although the Battle of Blenheim is the most memorable battle of this war, many argue that it could not have been made possible by the strength of the English navy which forced France to retreat from the seas. The first great naval victory for Britain came at Vigo in 1702; slowly the British would gain supremacy of the Mediterranean.[31] The great turning point on the seas came in 1707 where the bulk of France’s fleet was destroyed at Toulon, also the site of Napoleon’s first true victory in the French Revolutionary wars.[32] This leads France to abandon the seas and seek a privateering war.[33] By winning the naval war, Britain was able to put pressure on France by forcing them to resort to a continental war. Hence making France vulnerable to attack, and keeping foreign troops way from the British Isles. The war would end with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 which gave Britain more territory in Canada, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean.[34] And most importantly, the war marked the arrival or some claim return of England as a major European power.[35]

The period after the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 and the end of the much more important Seven Years War in 1763 was characterized by the unprecedented development of the Royal Navy. Between this time frame, Britain fought the Spanish in the War of Jenkin’s Ear between 1739 and 1748, as well as the War of Austrian Succession in 1840-48. These two wars would have an important role in causing the Seven Year’s War which would make England the foremost military, imperial and economic power in Europe. After the Queen Anne’s death in 1714, the Hanoverians were instated as the Ruling Dynasty in England. It is under the Hanoverians that the Navy would see the most important developments in its history.

By the end of 1755, the navy had expanded to over 200 ships in commission, including 88 of the line, and personnel of 40,000.[36] When the Seven Years War began, the navy had increased to 239 total ships in commission, in which 90 were ships of the line.[37] And the manpower had increased to over sixty thousand.[38] At the height of the Seven Years War in 1759, the Navy had increased to about 300 ships with over 80,000 Navy personnel.[39] However, the attempt to tax the American colonies in the 1760s would reveal the limitation of the fiscal power of the early British Empire.[40] The wars in this period would lead to a shortage of government revenue that would eventually lead to the loss of the American colonies in 1776.[41]

The Seven Years War which lasted 1757-63 involved all the great powers of Europe. The causes of this major war are numerous, but most historians agree that this war was largely caused by the imperial ambitions of all the great powers. Imperial ambitions include both on the European continent and in the Americas. Britain entered the war with Prussian then ruled by the military genius Frederick the Great. Britain’s main aims concerned the American Colonies (which included Canada), India and the West Indies, which were coming under threat from France.[42] Britain fought most of this war on the seas, both in Europe and the Americas. And the English navy would play an important role in Great Britain’s victory. English naval power would reach its zenith during this war; very few English ships were sunk, while no fewer then 1165 French merchant ships were taken as prizes.[43] Britain won the commercial war, and its navy played a crucial role in defeating the French in Canada.

The most important battle in the Seven Years War happened in Canada. The battle of Quebec or the Plains of Abraham was a land battle that solidified British dominion and Canada and would spell the end of a French presence in Quebec province.[44] The Royal Navy played an important role in this battle, helping General James Wolfe move into the St. Lawrence with twenty-two English Ships of the line and five frigates on his way to defeating the French forces on September 13, 1759.[45] Like Horatio Nelson, Wolfe’s death did more to enhance his image in history then he could ever dream to accomplish in his lifetime. In Europe the Royal Navy was able to aid its Prussian allies by gaining naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic at France’s expense. [46] This war did much to raise the grandeur and pride in the Royal Navy.

After the Treaty of Paris brought the Seven Years to an end in 1763, it seemed that Britain was covered by an aura of optimism. The war had made them the greatest imperial power in Europe and the navy continued to expand. In 1765, the Navy Board built the 100-gun first-rate ship Victory, which was the first of its kind and widely considered the benchmark ship of the period.[47] In the first half of the eighteenth century the Royal Navy consisted of twenty first and second rate ships, approximately 40 third rate ships and 120 smaller rate ships.[48] By 1775, the Royal Navy had 117 ships of the line and 82 cruisers.[49] France and Spain by comparison had 59 and 64 ships of the line and 37 and 28 cruisers.[50] By these numbers it appears that the Great Britain was a dominant power, however this did not always translate into successes.

The war against the American colonies in the period 1776 to the early 1780s would demonstrate the limitations of the Royal Navy and the damaging impact that diplomatic isolation might have on a country like Great Britain.[51] The Seven Years War had left Great Britain without any major European allies.[52] This rendered Great Britain incapable of defeating the American troops on land, despite its naval supremacy. The military and financial aid by both France and Spain made the revolution successful. The 1777 blockade of the revolting American colonies was largely ineffective because of a lack of ships.[53] Britain maintained a naval presence in the North Atlantic to counter French power, which leads to a shortage of ships.[54] The success of enemy privateers took a large toll on the English navy which lost 3386 ships in the conflict which created an economic crisis.[55] This handed Britain a severe blow, however this created a determination to recover and that is exactly what happened.

Little could prepare Great Britain for what was to come after the French Revolution began in 1789. This ushered in a period of political chaos on the European continent. Looking to expand trade further at France’s expense, the Royal Navy launched a naval war against France in 1793. At this time, it seemed poised for a victory, with almost 100 new or freshly repaired ships.[56] The French and Napoleonic wars were a period of astronomical growth with spending increasing 450 percent from 1793 to 1815.[57] In 1789 the British Army was 40,000, and the royal Navy was at 16,000 men.[58] But the increased vulnerability to French invasion forced the Navy to grow to over 140,000 in 1812, while the combined size of the Navy and Army was an astounding half a million by 1804.[59] By 1809, there were 113 British ships in commission, the highest figure in history.[60] The total number of cruiser rose to an astonishing 596, which meant that for the only time in recorded history, one nation has possessed more then half of the world’s warships.[61] This obviously took a heavy toll on the economy and public finances. In 1799 William Pitt the Younger introduced the country’s first income tax system to help pay for the war.[62]

The Napoleonic war showed the limitation of the “blue water” policy, but once again the Royal Navy played a crucial role its recovery and victory. Early on in the French Revolutionary war, Britain made some important imperial gains at France’s expense in the Caribbean, and in the Mediterranean. But around 1795, France began to recover militarily, especially in its southern front where Napoleon Bonaparte had emerged as France’s star general. The first important naval battle in post-revolutionary era occurred in 1798 when Napoleon invaded the Ottoman territory of Egypt. His main objective was to establish a French presence in the region to supersede that of Britain. But a French fleet was attacked in the Nile, and is completely destroyed. This is the first great battle won by Horatio Nelson and leads eventually to the British conquest of Egypt from France.

On the continent, Napoleon officially becomes leader of France in 1799 and begins to solidify his place as one of the great military commanders in history. By 1804, France has made peace with all the great powers of Europe, and established its self as the leading power on the continent once again. Britain begins to feel isolated. Without much of a land army, and no allies, it cannot fight a continental war and becomes vulnerable to invasion by France. But, this invasion never comes, Napoleon found the Royal Navy far too powerful for the French fleet to match. If he had been successful, Napoleon would easily have defeated the British army if he had landed in England, the wars would have been over. It was not until 1805 when once again Horatio Nelson caught a French and Spanish fleet off Trafalgar did England finally defeat the French Navy decisively. Never again would France challenge England’s naval supremacy. But the war still had to be won on the continent and Great Britain still had no army.

In the same month as Trafalgar, Napoleon won is greatest victory at Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians. He would continue on to Ulm, Elyau and Friedland, culminating in the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, which made him the master of the European continent. Once again Britain was isolated, but suddenly there was an incident of divine intervention. In 1808 France invaded Spain and Portugal which opened up a new front for the now developed British army under the Duke of Wellington. And in 1812, the most unexpected event occurred; Napoleon’s army was defeated (in part) in Russia and forced to retreat. Austria, Prussia, Russia, along with Britain would defeat Napoleon in 1814 and force him into exile. Upon his return, months later, he was defeated by the combined armies of Britain under the Duke of Wellington and Prussia under Gebhard von Blucher at Waterloo and the war was finally over.

In the end it was not the English Navy that defeated Napoleon, however its relative strengthen safeguarded the British Isles and kept the French army on the continent. This allowed the continental powers, as well as the Duke of Wellington to finally defeat Napoleon, one of the greatest military leaders in history. Afterwards, the Council of Vienna ushered in a period of fragile peace that allowed Britain to develop into the foremost imperial power in the world.

In conclusion, the development of the Royal British Navy propelled Great Britain into the great power stratosphere by the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. The end of the English Civil Wars in 1649 began the development of the navy, which would eventually culminate in the official “blue water” policy designed to establish the navy as the foremost force in the world. The British merchant class would rely on the navy to open up foreign markets in the Americas, Africa and Asia. This method would make Britain the foremost economic engine in the world. And by the late eighteenth century, it would begin to build on its colonial possessions around the world. Like Ancient Athens before it, Britain’s history is forever synonymous with its navy. When Great Britain’s empire began to disintegrate after World War Two, its people were forced to accept the diminishing influence and power of their country but would always derive pride from the time that Britannica controlled the seas. The legacy of the British Empire is derived from naval greatness.

(The Author of this article is not known. If this article is yours, please contact the site webmaster to be accredited)

Black, Jeremy and Philip Woodfine. The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988.

Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.

McLynn, Frank. 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004.

Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.

Stone, Lawrence ed., An Imperial State At War: Britain from 1689 to 1815. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

[1] John Brewer. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. 11.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid. 12.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid. 169.
[6] Ibid. 168.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] N.A.M. Rodgers. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004. 182.
[12] Ibid. 183.
[13] Ibid. 184.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid. 182.
[17] Ibid. 186.
[18] Ibid. 188.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid. 197.
[23] Brewer, 200.
[24] Ibid. 203-4.
[25] Ibid. 211-12.
[26] Rodgers, 164.
[27] Brewer, 171.
[28] Rodgers, 164.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid. 166.
[32] Ibid. 171.
[33] Ibid. 172.
[34] Ibid. 179.
[35] Brewer, 172.
[36] Jeremy Black and Phillip Woodfine ed., The British Navy and the Use of Naval power in the Eighteenth Century. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988. 112.
[37] Ibid. 115.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid. 123.
[40] Brewer, 176.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid. 174.
[43] Ibid. 198.
[44] Frank McLynn. 1759: The Year that Britain Became Master of the World. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004. 210.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid. 234.
[47] Brewer, 34.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Rodger, 608.
[50] Ibid.
[51] Brewer, 176.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Black and Woodfine ed., 175.
[54] Ibid.
[55] Brewer, 198.
[56] Black and Woodfine ed., 208.
[57] Ibid. 209.
[58] Lawrence Stone ed., An Imperial States at War: Britain From 1689 to1815. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. 167.
[59] Stone, 167.
[60] Rodger, 482.
[61] Ibid. 483.
[62] Ibid. 474.