William Charles Henry Wood.

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this: that, for all we owe to other folk and other things than fleets,
our sea-girt British Empire was chiefly won, and still is chiefly kept,
by warriors of the sea-borne "Hardy-Norseman" breed.


Desire in my heart ever urges my spirit to wander,
To seek out the home of the stranger in lands afar off.
There is no one that dwells on earth so exalted in mind,
So large in his bounty, nor yet of such vigorous youth,
Nor so daring in deeds, nor to whom his liege lord is so kind,
But that he has always a longing, a sea-faring passion
For what the Lord God shall bestow, be it honour or death.
No heart for the harp has he, nor for acceptance of treasure,
No pleasure has he in a wife, no delight in the world,
Nor in aught save the roll of the billows; but always a longing,
A yearning uneasiness hastens him on to the sea.


_Translated from the Anglo-Saxon_.




The Celts had been little more than a jumble of many different tribes
before the Romans came. The Romans had ruled England and the south of
Scotland as a single country. But when they left it the Celts had let
it fall to pieces again. The Norsemen tried, time after time, to make
one United Kingdom; but they never quite succeeded for more than a few
years. They had to wait for the empire-building Normans to teach them
how to make, first, a kingdom and then an empire that would last.

Yet Offa, Edgar, and Canute went far towards making the first step by
trying to raise a Royal Navy strong enough to command at least the
English sea. Offa, king of Mercia or Middle England (757-796) had no
sooner fought his way outwards to a sure foothold on the coast than he
began building a fleet so strong that even the great Emperor
Charlemagne, though ruling the half of Europe, treated him on equal
terms. Here is Offa's good advice to all future kings of England: "He
who would be safe on land must be supreme at sea." Alfred the Great
(871-901) was more likely to have been thinking of the navy than of
anything else when, as a young man hiding from the Danes, he forgot to
turn the cakes which the housewife had left him to watch. Anyhow he
tried the true way to stop the Danes, by attacking them before they
landed, and he caused ships of a new and better kind to be built for
the fleet. Edgar (959-975) used to go round Great Britain every year
inspecting the three different fleets into which his navy was divided;
one off the east of England, another off the north of Scotland, and the
third in the Irish Sea. It is said that he was once rowed at Chester
on the River Dee by no less than eight kings, which showed that he was
following Offa's advice by making his navy supreme over all the
neighbouring coasts of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

After Edgar's death the Danes held command of the sea. They formed the
last fierce wave of hardy Norsemen to break in fury on the English
shore and leave descendants who are seamen to the present day. Nelson,
greatest of all naval commanders, came from Norfolk, where Danish blood
is strongest. Most of the fishermen on the east coast of Great Britain
are of partly Danish descent; and no one served more faithfully through
the Great War than these men did against the submarines and mines.
King George V, whose mother is a Dane, and who is himself a first-rate
seaman, must have felt a thrill of ancestral pride in pinning V.C.'s
over their undaunted hearts. Fifty years before the Norman conquest
Canute the Dane became sole king of England. He had been chosen King
of Denmark by the Danish Fleet. But he was true to England as well;
and in 1028, when he conquered Norway, he had fifty English vessels
with him.

Meanwhile another great Norseman, Leif Ericsson, seems to have
discovered America at the end of the tenth century: that is, he was as
long before Columbus as Columbus was before our own day. In any case
Norsemen settled in Iceland and discovered Greenland; so it may even be
that the "White Eskimos" found by the Canadian Arctic Expedition of
1913 were the descendants of Vikings lost a thousand years ago. The
Saga of Eric the Red tells how Leif Ericsson found three new countries
in the Western World - Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. As two of
these must have been Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, which Cabot
discovered with his English crew in 1497, it is certain that Canada was
seen first either by Norsemen or by their descendants.

The Norse discovery of America cannot be certainly proved like the
discoveries made by Cabot and Columbus. But one proved fact telling in
favour of the Norsemen is that they were the only people who built
vessels "fit to go foreign" a thousand years ago. All other people
hugged the shore for centuries to come. The Norsemen feared not any

Some years ago a Viking (or Warrior's) ship, as old as those used by
Ericsson, was found in the "King's Mound" in Gokstad, Southern Norway.
Seated in her was the skeleton of the Viking Chief who, as the custom
used to be, was buried in his floating home. He must have stood well
over six foot three and been immensely strong, judging by his deep
chest, broad shoulders, and long arms fit to cleave a foeman at a
single stroke. This Viking vessel is so well shaped to stand the
biggest waves, and yet slip through the water with the greatest ease,
that she could be used as a model now. She has thirty-two oars and a
big square sail on a mast, which, like the one in the old Egyptian boat
we were talking of in Chapter II, could be quickly raised or lowered.
If she had only had proper sails and rigging she could have tacked
against the wind. But, as we shall soon see, the art of tacking was
not invented till five centuries later; though then it was done by an
English descendant of the Vikings.

Eighty foot long and sixteen in the beam, this Viking vessel must have
looked the real thing as she scudded before a following wind or dashed
ahead when her thirty-two oars were swept through the water by
sixty-four pairs of the strongest arms on earth. Her figure-head has
gone; but she probably had a fierce dragon over the bows, just ready to
strike. Her sides were hung with glittering shields; and when mere
landsmen saw a Viking fleet draw near, the oars go in, the swords come
out, and Vikings leap ashore - no wonder they shivered in their shoes!

It was in this way that the Normans first arrived in Normandy and made
a home there in spite of Franks and Gauls, just as the Danes made
English homes in spite of Celts and Anglo-Saxons. There was no navy to
oppose them. Neither was there any fleet to oppose William the
Conqueror in 1066, when he crossed the Channel to seize the English
Crown. Harold of England had no great fleet in any case; and what he
had was off the Yorkshire coast, where his brother had come to claim
the Crown, backed by the King of Norway. The Battle of Hastings, which
made William king of England, was therefore a land battle only. But
the fact that William had a fleet in the Channel, while Harold had not,
gave William the usual advantage in the campaign. From that day to
this England has never been invaded; and for the best of all
reasons - because no enemy could ever safely pass her fleet.


The Normans at last gave England what none of her other Norsemen gave
her, the power of becoming the head and heart of the future British
Empire. The Celts, Danes, Jutes, and Anglo-Saxons had been fusing
together the iron of their natures to make one strong, united British
race. The Normans changed this iron into steel: well tempered,
stronger than iron could be, and splendidly fit for all the great work
of imperial statesmen as well as for that of warriors by land and sea.

The Normans were not so great in numbers. But they were very great in
leadership. They were a race of rulers. Picked men of Nordic stock to
start with, they had learnt the best that France could teach them:
Roman law and order and the art of founding empires, Frankish love of
freedom, a touch of Celtic wit, and the new French civilization. They
went all over seaboard Europe, conquerors and leaders wherever they
went. But nowhere did they set their mark so firmly and so lastingly
as in the British Isles. They not only conquered and became leaders
among their fellow-Norsemen but they went through most of Celtic
Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, founding many a family whose descendants
have helped to make the Empire what it is.

William the Conqueror built a fleet as soon as he could; for only a few
of the vessels he brought over from Normandy were of any use as
men-of-war. But there were no great battles on the water till the one
off the South Foreland more than a century after his death. He and the
kings after him always had to keep their weather eye open for Danes and
other rovers of the sea as well as for the navy of the kings of France.
But, except when Henry II went to Ireland in 1171, there was no great
expedition requiring a large fleet. Strongbow and other ambitious
nobles had then begun conquering parts of Ireland on their own account.
So Henry recalled his Englishmen, lest they should go too far without
him, and held a court at which they promised to give him, as their
liege overlord, all the conquests they either had made or might make.
Henry, who understood the value of sea-power, at once granted them
whatever they could conquer, except the seaports, which he would keep
for the Crown.

When Henry died Richard the Lion-Hearted and Philip Augustus of France
agreed to join in a great Crusade. Zeal for the Christian religion and
love of adventure together drew vast numbers of Crusaders to the Holy
Land. But sea-power also had a great deal to do with the Crusades.
The Saracens, already strong at sea in the East, were growing so much
stronger that Western statesmen thought it high time to check them,
lest their fleets should command the whole Mediterranean and perhaps
the seas beyond.

In 1190 Richard joined his fleet at Messina, in Sicily, where roving
Normans were of course to be found as leaders in peace and war.
Vinesauf the historian, who was what we should now call a war
correspondent, wrote a glowing account of the scene. "As soon as the
people heard of his arrival they rushed in crowds to the shore to
behold the glorious King of England, and saw the sea covered with
innumerable galleys. And the sound of trumpets from afar, with the
sharper blasts of clarions, resounded in their ears. And they saw the
galleys rowing near the land, adorned and furnished with all kinds of
arms, with countless pennons floating in the breeze, ensigns at the
tops of lances, the beaks of the galleys beautified by painting, and
glittering shields hanging from the prows. The sea looked as if it was
boiling from the vast number of oar blades in it. The trumpets grew
almost deafening. And each arrival was greeted with bursts of
cheering. Then our splendid King stood up on a prow higher than all
the rest, with a gorgeously dressed staff of warriors about him, and
surveyed the scene with pleasure. After this he landed, beautifully
dressed, and showed himself graciously to all who approached him."

The whole English fleet numbered about two hundred and thirty vessels,
with stores for a year and money enough for longer still. A southerly
gale made nearly everybody sea-sick; for the Italian rowers in the
galleys were little better as seamen than the soldiers were, being used
to calm waters. Some vessels were wrecked on the rocks of Cyprus, when
their crews were robbed by the king there. This roused the
Lion-Hearted, who headed a landing party which soon brought King
Comnenus to his senses. Vinesauf wrote to say that when Comnenus sued
for peace Richard was mounted on a splendid Spanish war-horse and
dressed in a red silk tunic embroidered with gold. Red seems to have
been a favourite English war colour from very early times. The red St.
George's Cross on a white field was flown from the masthead by the
commander-in-chief of the fleet, just as it is today. On another flag
always used aboard ship three British lions were displayed.

After putting Comnenus into silver chains and shutting him up in a
castle Richard set two governors over Cyprus, which thus became the
first Eastern possession of the British Crown. Seven centuries later
it again came into British hands, this time to stay. Richard then
sailed for the siege of Acre in Palestine. But on the way he met a
Turkish ship of such enormous size that she simply took Vinesauf's
breath away. No one thought that any ship so big had ever been built
before, "unless it might be Noah's Ark", Richard had a hundred galleys.
The Turkish ship was quite alone; but she was a tough nut to crack, for
all that. She was said to have had fifteen hundred men aboard, which
might be true, as soldiers being rushed over for the defence of Acre
were probably packed like herrings in a barrel. As this was the first
English sea fight in the Crusades, and the first in which a King of all
England fought, the date should be set down: the 7th of June, 1191.

The Turk was a very stoutly built vessel, high out of the water and
with three tall masts, each provided with a fighting top from which
stones and jars of Greek fire could be hurled down on the galleys. She
also had "two hundred most deadly serpents, prepared for killing
Christians." Altogether, she seems to have been about as devilish a
craft as even Germans could invent. As she showed no colours Richard
hailed her, when she said she was a French ship bound for Acre. But as
no one on board could speak French he sent a galley to test her. As
soon as the Englishmen went near enough the Turks threw Greek fire on
them. Then Richard called out: "Follow me and take her! If she
escapes you lose my love for ever. If you take her, all that is in her
will be yours." But when the galleys swarmed round her she beat them
off with deadly showers of arrows and Greek fire. There was a pause,
and the galleys seemed less anxious to close again. Then Richard
roared out: "If this ship escapes every one of you men will be hanged!"
After this some men jumped overboard with tackle which they made fast
to the Turkish rudder. They and others then climbed up her sides,
having made ropes fast with grapnels. A furious slashing and stabbing
followed on deck. The Turks below swarmed up and drove the English
overboard. Nothing daunted, Richard prepared to ram her. Forming up
his best galleys in line-abreast he urged the rowers to their utmost
speed. With a terrific rending crash the deadly galley beaks bit home.
The Turk was stove in so badly that she listed over and sank like a
stone. It is a pity that we do not know her name. For she fought
overwhelming numbers with a dauntless courage that nothing could
surpass. As she was the kind of ship then called a "dromon" she might
be best remembered as "the dauntless dromon."

King John, who followed Richard on the throne of England, should be
known as John the Unjust. He was hated in Normandy, which Philip
Augustus of France took from him in 1204. He was hated in England,
where the English lords forced him to sign Magna Charta in 1215. False
to his word, he had no sooner signed it than he began plotting to get
back the power he had so shamefully misused; and the working out of
this plot brought on the first great sea fight with the French.

Looking out for a better king the lords chose Prince Louis of France,
who landed in England next year and met them in London. But John
suddenly died. His son, Henry III, was only nine. So England was
ruled by William Marshal, the great Earl of Pembroke, one of the ablest
patriots who ever lived. Once John was out of the way the English
lords who had wrung from him the great charter of English liberties
became very suspicious of Louis and the French. A French army was
besieging Lincoln in 1217, helped by the English followers of Louis,
when the Earl Marshal, as Pembroke is called, caught this Anglo-French
force between his own army and the garrison, who joined the attack, and
utterly defeated it in a battle the people called the Fair of Lincoln.
Louis, who had been besieging Dover, at once sent to France for another
army. But this brought on the battle of the South Foreland, which was
the ruin of his hopes.

The French commander was Eustace the Monk, a Flemish hireling who had
fought first for John and then for Louis. He was good at changing
sides, having changed from monk to pirate because it paid him better,
and having since been always up for sale to whichever side would pay
him best. But he was bold and skilful; he had a strong fleet; and both
he and his followers were very keen to help Louis, who had promised
them the spoils of England if they won. Luckily for England this
danger brought forth her first great sea commander, Hubert de Burgh:
let his name be long remembered. Hubert had stood out against Louis as
firmly as he had against John, and as firmly as he was again to face
another bad king, when Henry III tried to follow John's example.
Hubert had refused to let Louis into Dover Castle. He had kept him out
during the siege that followed. And he was now holding this key to the
English Channel with the same skill and courage as was shown by the
famous Dover Patrol throughout the war against the Germans.

Hubert saw at once that the best way to defend England from invasion
was to defeat the enemy at sea by sailing out to meet him. This is as
true today as ever. The best possible way of defending yourself always
is to destroy the enemy's means of destroying you; and, with us of the
British Empire, the only sure way to begin is to smash the enemy's
fleet or, if it hides in port, blockade it. Hubert, of course, had
trouble to persuade even the patriotic nobles that his own way was the
right one; for, just as at the present day, most people knew nothing of
the sea. But the men of the Cinque Ports, the five great seaports on
the south-east coast of England, did know whereof they spoke when they
answered Hubert's call: "If this tyrant Eustace lands he will lay the
country waste. Let us therefore meet him while he is at sea."

Hubert's English fleet of forty ships sailed from Dover on the 24th of
August, 1217, and steered towards Calais; for the wind was
south-south-east and Hubert wished to keep the weather gage. For six
hundred years to come, (that is, till, after Trafalgar, sails gave way
to steam), the sea commanders who fought to win by bold attack always
tried to keep the weather gage. This means that they kept on the
windward side of the enemy, which gave them a great advantage, as they
could then choose their own time for attacking and the best weak spot
to attack, while the enemy, having the wind ahead, could not move half
so fast, except when running away. Hubert de Burgh was the first
commander who understood all about the weather gage and how to get it.
Even the clever Eustace was taken in, for he said, "I know these clever
villains want to plunder Calais. But the people there are ready for
them." So he held his course to the Forelands, meaning to round into
the mouth of Thames and make for London.

Then Hubert bore down. His fleet was the smaller; but as he had the
weather gage he succeeded in smashing up the French rear before the
rest could help it. As each English vessel ranged alongside it threw
grappling irons into the enemy, who were thus held fast. The English
archers hailed a storm of well aimed arrows on the French decks, which
were densely crowded by the soldiers Eustace was taking over to conquer
England. Then the English boarded, blinding the nearest French with
lime, cutting their rigging to make their vessels helpless, and
defeating the crews with great slaughter. Eustace, having lost the
weather gage, with which he had started out that morning, could only
bring his fleet into action bit by bit. Hubert's whole fleet fought
together and won a perfect victory.

More than a century later the unhappy Hundred Years War (1336-1431)
broke out. All the countries of Western Europe took a hand in it at
one time or another. Scotland, which was a sort of sub-kingdom under
the King of England, sided with France because she wished to be
independent of England, while the smaller countries on the eastern
frontier of France sided with England because they were afraid of
France. But the two great opponents were always France and England.
The Kings of England had come from Normandy and other parts of what is
now France and what then were fiefs of the Crown of France, as Scotland
was a fief of the Crown of England. They therefore took as much
interest in what they held in France as in their own out-and-out
Kingdom of England. Moreover, they not only wanted to keep what they
had in France but to make it as independent of the French King as the
Scotch King wanted to make Scotland independent of them.

In the end the best thing happened; for it was best to have both
kingdoms completed in the way laid out by Nature: France, a great
land-power, with a race of soldiers, having all that is France now; and
England, the great sea-power, with a race of sailors, becoming one of
the countries that now make up the United Kingdom of the British Isles.
But it took a hundred years to get the English out of France, and much
longer still to bring all parts of the British Isles under a single

In the fourteenth century the population of France, including all the
French possessions of the English Crown, was four times the population
of England. One would suppose that the French could easily have driven
the English out of every part of France and have carried the war into
England, as the Romans carried their war into Carthage. But English
sea-power made all the difference. Sea-power not only kept Frenchmen
out of England but it helped Englishmen to stay in France and win many
a battle there as well. Most of the time the English fleet held the
command of the sea along the French as well as along the English coast.
So the English armies enjoyed the immense advantage of sea-transport
over land-transport, whenever men, arms, horses, stores, food, and
whatever else their armies needed could be moved by water, while the
French were moving their own supplies by land with more than ten times
as much trouble and delay.

Another and most important point about the Hundred Years War is this:
that it does not stand alone in history, but is only the first of the
two very different kinds of Hundred Years War which France and England
have fought out. The first Hundred Years War was fought to decide the
absolute possession of all the lands where Frenchmen lived; and France,
most happily, came out victorious. The second Hundred Years War
(1689-1815) was fought to decide the command of the sea; and England
won. When we reach this second Hundred Years War, and more especially
when we reach that part of it which was directed by the mighty Pitt, we
shall understand it as the war which made the British Empire of today.

The first big battle of the first Hundred Years War was fought in 1340
between the French and English fleets at Sluys, a little seaport up a
river in the western corner of what is Holland now. King Philip of
France had brought together all the ships he could, not only French
ones but Flemish, with hired war galleys and their soldiers and slave
oarsmen from Genoa and elsewhere. But, instead of using this fleet to
attack the English, and so clear the way for an invasion of England, he
let it lie alongside the mudbanks of Sluys. Edward III, the future
victor of Cressy, Poitiers, and Winchelsea, did not take long to seize
so good a chance. The French fleet was placed as if on purpose to
ensure its own defeat; for it lay at anchor in three divisions, each
division with all the vessels lashed together, and the whole three in
one line with a flank to the sea. The English officers who had landed
to look at it saw at once that if this flank was properly attacked it
could be smashed in on the next bit of the line, and that on the next,
and so on, before the remaining bits could come to the rescue. On the
turn of the tide Edward swooped down with his best ships, knocked this
flank to pieces, and then went on till two divisions had been rolled up
in complete confusion. Then the ebb-tide set out to sea; and the
Genoese of the third division mostly got away.

Ten years later (1350) the English for the first time fought a Spanish

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Online LibraryWilliam Charles Henry WoodFlag and Fleet → online text (page 3 of 19)