18 Dec 20
Posted by: David Childs

For many years I had a bookshelf filled with books about the Tudor Navy and related topics.  Not anymore.  Downsizing.  Several walks to Oxfam with a bulging Tesco bag accounted for most of them.  Sad to think of all that fact and detail, by now probably shredded.  But why worry? Along comes Mark Lardas’s book which in 80, beautifully illustrated pages tells most of us all we might ever wish to know about that glorious period which saw: the birth of the modern Royal Navy; its second most famous and nation-saving battle; and the life of several of its heroes, one of whom, Drake, concluded the first English circumnavigation.

All these events are succinctly told by the author but are done so while always referencing the vital differences in the state of the two competing nations, England and Spain, whose governance, economy, industry and outlook all had a part to play in the long conflict waged between them.

The English Crown was ever cash-strapped and needed people, who it could not afford to pay, to present it with an income, it could not invest to earn.  Hence the licencing of privateers, like Drake, slavers (yes! Slavers) like Hawkins, and many others who paid the crown for the privilege of robbing Spain and Portugal.  They succeeded because they built robust small warships, heavily gunned with excellent weaponry being cast in foundries in London and the Weald.  This created a maritime nation which focused on command of the seas and the professional skills necessary to maintain this and, by doing so, be richly rewarded through captured treasure. By contrast, a study of English military operations on the continent during the 16th century reveals disaster and incompetence on most occasions.  Here, it must be stated that Tudor aristocrats commanded the Army while commoners commanded at sea or, in the case of Effingham and the Armada, were well guided by the professionals.

Spain, by contrast, had wealth the like of which the world had never seen been shipped from both Indies, to the benefit of relatively few of its citizens the majority of whom regarded soldiering as a vastly superior career choice to sailoring.  As a result, it had few and inferior warships commanded by inexperienced army officers who remained committed to the idea of fighting a land battle at sea from their hulking floating forts whose guns had been built for land warfare.  But they had manpower.   What they wanted to do was collide, board and overwhelm. What the English wished to do was stand-off, blast and capture:  the chance of a tidy profit disappeared along with a sinking prize. No Spaniard saw a fortune awaiting him on the capture of an English hull.

The difference in hull design, weaponry, manning, sailing, manoeuvring and tactics is well covered by Lardas and his writing is supported by excellent drawings, diagrams and the best map of the 16th century Atlantic and its trade routes that the reviewer has seen.  Excellent also are the diagrams illustrating how cannon were loaded and fired and how sails were set and furled.  The account of Drake’s circumnavigation and the last fight of the little Revenge are both compact and detailed and, what is equally important, told with not a little excitement.  This would be an excellent gift for a grandson (or granddaughter, or for the younger reader, son or daughter) to stimulate their interest in this swashbuckling period of English history. Not all books are a joy to review, this one certainly was.