- Lewis, Tom, AOM, Lieutenant RAN
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A SURE WAY OF ENSURING RAGE from Army colleagues is for a Navy member to start up a discussion as to the order of protocol for a march, or a display or whatever – and insisting that Navy goes first, in that ‘the Navy is the Senior Service.’ Try it and see!
But what is the background, and indeed the validity of this argument? The usual suggestion is that the Royal Navy is the oldest service in Britain’s history. There was a ‘standing Navy’ in Tudor times, whereas the Army was an occasional thing, dating back from the ‘feudal levies’, which were bands of trained soldiers brought to the Sovereign’s service as occasion dictated by the barons and knights of the realm.
Indeed, if we examine the history of the British Navy, we can see that many historians trace it back to King Alfred’s time, when in 885 AD he ‘. . . went out to sea in ships and fought against four ships’ companies of Danes’. ((Hill J.R. (ed.) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Another correspondent suggests that it is dated back to the Roman times: ‘the British naval service/system (has) a history (of) about 2,000 years, dating to Claudius Caesar. His first appointment for the Roman Occupation was a fellow titled as Count of the Saxon Shore. That omnibus position included port management, safety, harbour defence, seaward defence (inclusive of creating a coastal naval defence force) against roving pirates from what became Denmark, Norway, and the Frisian Islands region, and whatever else might be needed to fulfil needs and solve maritime problems around the new colony’. Frank Pierce Young – Marine History Information Exchange Group 7 Oct. 1999. http://www.marmus.ca/databases/)) The Anglo Saxon Chronicle suggests that a tax for the upkeep of a fleet had been made by the time of Edward the Confessor’s accession in 1043. ((‘AD 1039. This year King Harold died at Oxford on the sixteenth before the kalends of April, and he was buried at Westminster. And he ruled England four years and sixteen weeks; and in his days sixteen ships were retained in pay, at the rate of eight marks for each rower, in like manner as had been before done in the days of King Canute. And in this same year came King Hardecanute to Sandwich, seven days before midsummer. And he was soon acknowledged as well by English as by Danes; though his advisers afterwards grievously requited it, when they decreed that seventy two ships should be retained in pay, at the rate of eight marks for each rower’. http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/1036-42.html)) It is well known that the marauding armies of, say, Edward III, who was the victor of the Battle of Crecy in 1346, were raised for the time and then paid off when the need had passed. Indeed, there have been suggestions made ((See for example, Battlefield Detectives‘ analysis of this battle’s reasons for success and failure.)) that this was one of the factors that led to the successful invasion of Britain in 1066 by William the Conqueror: King Harold’s Army had been kept on hand for too long, and its soldiers wanted to go home to get the harvest in.
A rationale for keeping naval forces on hand relates to the way armies and navies were used from the earliest times. An army’s main tactics related to skills that could be kept up without the soldiers being in a permanent force: the use of bow and simple sword was a skill that an average rural inhabitant of Britain might be expected to keep for defence and for hunting. It is admitted, of course, that the more sophisticated cavalry skills of lance and shield on a horse demanded more practice, but these were the province of the elite of knights, the ownership of a horse and armour being beyond the average man. Thus the main body of troops did not need to be professional soldiers. However, the handling of a ship at sea demanded more practice, and moreover ships needed to be maintained and kept ready for use. Therefore, for example, the English in 1217 were able to put immediately to sea a force of 36 ships to deal with a French fleet threatening attack off Dover. ((Hill (6))) And so down the years the monarchs saw to it that a full-time force was maintained. Under Henry VIII the Navy rose to new heights, and with Drake and Hawkins Queen Elizabeth’s fleet defeated the Spanish in one of the most decisive battles of all time, in 1588, with the annihilation of the Armada.
A permanent army, by contrast, does not seem to be a feature of British history until the ‘New Model’ force under Cromwell. In return for regular pay and a professionally organised force, this well-trained body ‘. . . was a National army, as distinct from the various county associations which had hitherto fought the war . . ‘. ((Lockyer, Roger. Tudor and Stuart Britain. London: Longman 1971 (285))) Indeed, as one Encyclopedia notes, there is indeed some seniority involved in the prefix ‘Royal’ for the Navy: ‘The incorporation of the Royal Navy was in contrast to the land forces, which are descended from parliamentary forces and hence are not royal’. ((Wikipedia. http//wikipedia.org/wiki/ Royal_Navy))