The British Civil Wars at Sea, 1638-1653

3 mins read
The British Civil Wars at Sea
Richard J Blakemore and Elaine Murphy
Boydell Press, £65 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1783272297

Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, described the desertion of the Royal Navy to Parliament in 1642 as an ‘unspeakable ill consequence to the King’s affairs’.

For a monarch who was not unmindful of the importance of the Navy, this would have been particularly painful to Charles I. In response, the King attempted to create a ‘substitute navy’; despite occasional successes, it was never able to match the Parliamentarian navy.

Significantly, while the strength of its navy was an important factor in Parliament’s ultimate victory, the lack of a Royalist equivalent was decisive. As the authors explain, ‘Had Charles I possessed the naval strength to blockade London, the war could have ended considerably sooner, as Parliament’s war machine would probably have ground to a halt.’

Given that Parliament’s virtual control of the seas was so important in the ultimate defeat of the Royalists, it is surprising that there has not been a book about the Civil Wars at sea before now. This timely study presents a comprehensive analysis of the wars from a naval perspective, considering the structure, organisation, and manning of not just the Parliamentarian and Royalist navies, but that of the Irish Confederates as well. Indeed, the war in Irish waters is thoroughly covered, and this is one of the book’s several unique features.

The British Civil Wars at Sea demonstrates that in the space of just 15 years, the Navy was transformed from a force that was unable to prevent Dutch and Spanish fleets defying British neutrality into a Navy able to inflict a war-winning defeat on the Dutch, the greatest naval power of the 17th century.

The book highlights two critical moments during the period, first the initial opting for Parliament by seamen and officers at the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642, and then the mutiny and defection of part of the Parliamentarian navy during the Second Civil War in 1648.

In examining the nature of maritime warfare, the authors claim that most of the sieges that took place between 1642 and 1646 occurred along the coast. Once the ‘minor’ sieges (for example, castles and other similar-sized structures) are taken out of the equation, then this assertion is an accurate one.

Thus the importance of naval power, whether keeping a beleaguered town supplied, or preventing seaborne relief, is very significant. The examples of Bristol, Hull, Pembroke, and Plymouth – all cited by the authors – add weight to this claim. Given that fortress warfare was actually the dominant – albeit commonly overlooked – aspect of the British Civil Wars, the impact of sea power is apparent.

But perhaps the most surprising revelation of all is just how far the conflict spread: there are reports of Royalist versus Parliamentarian naval actions as far afield as the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, the coast of Newfoundland, and in the harbours of New England.

The book also looks at how Parliament secured major ports, how the Royalists attempted to run arms and munitions from continental Europe, and how armies were shipped to invade both Scotland and Ireland.

But while the description of the navy of the Irish Confederacy is particularly interesting, Scottish maritime activity is covered in far less detail, and mainly focuses on the activities of Alasdair MacColla, who was instrumental in the Montrose rebellion of 1644-1645.

The weaknesses of both the Royalist and Irish Confederate navies are analysed. Both of them were reliant on private individuals (who often viewed the provision of shipping not so much as supporting a cause as a form of investment for future profit), both looked for Continental support, both suffered from fluctuating strength, and, perhaps most significantly, both lacked direct control over the ships and the captains.

The Downs Mutiny of spring 1648 was probably the most notable naval ‘action’ of the Second Civil War, and was another missed opportunity for the Royalists, and yet another example of the uncoordinated nature of the Royalist war effort.

Following the execution of Charles I, the Navy was the Commonwealth’s first line of defence, and it was ‘the fear and insecurity of a military dictatorship surrounded by enemies real and imagined which made England a first-class naval power’.

During the campaigns in both Ireland and Scotland, the Navy played a critical role in supporting the logistical effort, and a strong naval presence around the coast of Britain made it difficult for foreign powers to intervene on behalf of Charles II.

The book only briefly touches on the development of naval technologies and weapons (such as the Dunkirk frigate) and on naval tactics, and had the book been expanded to look at both in more detail (with the addition of more illustrations) it would have made a good book better.

But this should take nothing away from what is a really thoroughly researched and scholarly tome. It fills a significant void in the understanding of the British Civil Wars, and as such is a valuable contribution to the military history of the period.

David Flintham

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