Having read Professor Rodger's excellent 'Wooden World' I was expecting much of the same and was not disappointed - this is an impeccably researched and erudite alternative history of England and its French dominions, which puts the naval element into full perspective .
Absolutely chock-full of notes and references, this nontheless flows as well as any historical novel, highlighting the hitherto unseen good and bad points of the various rulers of the day, and the key role that naval support provided, giving a new slant on history and politics. There are more twists and turns to the story than any TV soap could possibly invent.
What comes across loud and clear is the futility of war: the waste of money and resources in the pursuit of expansion is illustrated by the singular lack of success by all parties to make any substantial territorial gains - French, Dutch, Flemish, Scots or Scandinavian.
Imbedded in the politics is a reasoned overview of the development of the ship; from longboat and cog, through galley, hulk and caravel to the rise of the 3-masted ship-rigged vessel which came to dominate naval warfare in the following 200 years. The gradual change from supply and support vessel to an active ingredient of the war machine develops as technology improves, and the viability of funding a navy become more financially and logistically sound.
As one might expect from a work of this scope, the text is rounded off with a conclusion condensing the preceding 1000 years into a précis with the author's informed slant. There are 5 appendices (chronology, ships, fleets, pay & officials), a large reference, glossary, abbreviations and a huge bibliography.
For a complete overview of the mediaeval history of the British Isles, you can't go far wrong with this excellent book. Then read the follow-up - twice as large, covering a third of the time. *****
Though numerous books have been written about the battles, ships and heroes of the Royal Navy, surprisingly few have been written about the "naval history" of Britain - that is, the role that sea power has played in shaping its history. To rectify this, N.A.M. Rodger has written this book, the first of what is projected to be a three-volume history of Britain's sea power from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.
Britain's beginnings as a naval power were hardly auspicious. For centuries, most English kings eschewed maintaining a standing naval force, preferring to rely instead on conscripting merchant ships in time of need. That this was possible was due in part to the nature of naval warfare during the Middle Ages, which was largely an extension of land warfare; battles consisted of the crews of opposing ships engaging in hand-to-hand combat, almost always in the shallows or just off the coast. Yet Rodger notes that naval power was invaluable in granting mobility to an attacking force, a fact that was lost on most medieval English kings. Of their ranks, Rodger sees only Richard I and Henry V as understanding the value of sea power, and he credits both the French and the Castilians for superior strategic thinking in naval warfare during this period.
Though Rodger notes that both naval technology and combat tactics began to change in the 15th century, it was the 16th century that saw the emergence of England as a sea power. This he credits to the creation of an administrative structure to support the navy, a development lacking during the medieval period. This provided support for a standing force that could quickly and effectively be mobilized to deal with naval threats, as it was in 1588 to face the Spanish Armada. Rodger devotes an entire chapter to the naval showdown of 1588, penetrating through the myths to provide a thorough analysis of the battle that reversed the expansion of Spanish power. Yet the Armada was just the first battle in a fifteen-year war that created both a long-range merchant fleet and a group of people who realized the fortunes that could be made at sea - essential prerequisites to England's emergence as a true maritime power.
England's development into the dominant naval power she would become was hardly a linear one, though; as the years after peace was signed with Spain saw her naval position deteriorate. Though corruption played a role in this, Rodger sees the medieval structure of government assuming the burdens of a modern state as the main problem. Nowhere was this better represented in the naval challenges facing Charles I, who faced increasing demands for a different kind of force, one capable of defending England's new merchant fleet. The civil war resolved the challenges created by this demand, as the conflict between the king and Parliament led to the creation of the means of financing a modern naval force. Rodger ends with England in possession of a fractured, demoralized navy, yet one poised to make the great strides in the decades to come that would establish Britain as a world power.
Rodger relates all of this in a narrative that is extremely engaging, one that is backed by impressive scholarship. Yet this book is not without its flaws. Rodger assumes a degree of knowledge about ships and naval terminology that may be lacking in his reader, a problem that could have been addressed with a better glossary. More glaring is his lack of perspective. In endeavoring to construct a naval history of Britain, Rodger tends to view every major development through this lens. As a result, occasionally he overrates the role sea power plays in British history, as when he argues that the failure to provide an adequate maritime defense was a significant factor in the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 - something that might have come as a surprise to its participants, who might have argued that it had more to do with the poll tax and the restrictions of serfdom than the inadequacies of naval policy.
These problems should not obscure the overall excellence of Rodger's work. This is an invaluable study of Britain's emergence as a naval power, one that is essential reading for any student of early Britain or fans of naval history. One can only hope that the other volumes in the trilogy can measure up to the high standards he set with this book.
on 27 October 2004
NAM Rodger has confirmed his position as one of Britain's foremost naval historians. This very readable volume of what promises to be the definitive history of the Royal Navy, is both authoritative and illuminating. Covering the birth, rise and decline of the Royal Navy up to mid 17th century, Rodger provides the reader with a detailed analysis of the ships, men and organisation in place at the time. Supported by a large bibliography this is a book for the scholar or casual historian with an interest in Maritime affairs.
on 16 June 2011
As N.A.M. Rodger explains when he sets sail at the beginning of this book, this is much more than a history of the British Navy - it is a complete naval history of Britain; and the author completes the voyage triumphantly.
I was particularly enthralled by the medieval sections, because the book explodes so many myths, in particular the idea that England was a `sceptred isle', safe from foreign invasion after 1066. In fact, 1066 led to a disastrous decline in English sea-power. In the late Anglo-Saxon period the English were faced with a significant threat from the Vikings and they built a navy commensurate to the threat, though they were not always successful in fighting it off. The Norman Conquest, which put an end to the Scandinavian connection, led to a loss of interest in the sea and there ceased to be a `Royal Navy'. We made do instead with a fleet which was requisitioned and ad hoc. In contrast the French had the foresight to build a proper fleet in Rouen.
With the notable exception of Henry V, the medieval English kings had no appreciation of the importance of naval power; and, as a result of their neglect, England was highly vulnerable to invasion. During the first years of the Hundred Years War, the French exploited this to raid and threaten the English coasts on a regular basis. The English were lucky in that, unusually, their armies were superior, and they managed to gain the initiative.
This story is unfamiliar; but Rodger undoubtedly makes his case. Everything he writes is supported by abundant evidence. As one reviewer commented when this book was first published, the vast bibliography tells us all we need to know about the research and learning which has gone into the writing of it. It is a masterpiece in the true sense of the term; and it is likely to remain the leading authority for many years.
I won't add much of significance to the already existing reviews which cover this book perfectly well. N. A. M. Rodger's work gives a great insight into how seafaring has steered the course of the history of the British Isles, and will give the reader new perspective on already well known events - to take a prime example, analysing the happenings of the most famous year in English history, 1066, entirely from the point of the sea and the navies involved, something other writers never do, begins to show exactly why the events unfolded as they did. It is not completely without faults; because of the view of British history purely through a maritime lens, much is assumed on the part of the reader about the events of the period covered as they are touched upon only insofar as seafaring is involved; the author's writing also assumes a little too much about the reader's knowledge of ships and sailing in general (there is a glossary but this is not always helpful - more pictures of ship types would have been really useful); Scottish, Welsh and Irish readers may feel a little aggrieved about a book called "The Naval History of Britain" keeping its focus very much on England. Despite such deficiencies, this remains an important and invaluable book on British history.
on 9 May 2014
My son suggested I read two books by N A M Rodgers. I was always of the opinion primary source material was for obvious reasons in short supply and limited to interpretation of one sort or another.
I was wrong in the case of N A M Roberts. His books were a revelation, splendid examples extensively researched material woven together with fine prose, and not cobbled together to suit an argument.
If you really want to known how how our navy came into existence, you must read these books and the Wooden World, this is a study of life on board sailing ships.
on 28 December 2013
Can't say I've ever been interested in the development of the English navy (or any navy to be honest). I was bought the second book in the series as a present. I started to read it as I was bored (and immobile after an operation). Was so impressed and inspired by that book by the same author, that I bought myself the first book. Absolutely superb. Really detailed but very readable. Even if you are a navy historical ignoramus as I was, the layout and writing style is so good that not only is the subject understandable but becomes incredibly fascinating.
on 4 May 2015
It is easy to tell that the author is full of passion for this subject. The book is really well researched and written. It is a must read for any interested in history of England or our forces.
on 3 January 2002
Quite possibly the best synopsis of any country's naval development in any time and place currently available. Rodgers' has sucessfully condensed a thousand years of patchy data, incomplete records, self-interest, chaos, dissorder, bad - and more ocasionally good - luck into a volume readable by both academic and non-academic alike. It keeps good pace, provides endless references, and makes you think anew about overall developments to Britain during this period, not simply naval. What more could you ask !
on 23 March 2015
Outstanding mix of scholarship and dry humour. I knew it before, in a way, having Vol 2. I can't wait for Vol 3 to appear.