Essays in Naval History, from Medieval to Modern

N. A. M. Roger, Essays in Naval History, from Medieval to Modern, Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009. 344 pp., map, charts, graphs, notes, index.

Review by Jeffrey G. Barlow
Naval History and Heritage Command

Nicholas Roger, a Senior Research Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, is most recently known for his first two volumes of a projected history trilogy of Great Britain’s rise to naval power—The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Volume 1: 660-1649 (1997) and The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, Volume 2: 1649-1815 (2004). The book under review, Essays in Naval History, from Medieval to Modern, a volume in Ashgate’s Variorum Collected Studies Series, is a collection of articles by the author that were originally published in British, French, German, and Greek journals or edited volumes in the years from 1995 through 2004.

Roger’s book contains a fascinating series of articles on the creation and growth of European navies and developments in naval warfare over the centuries. The reader should be aware, however, that despite the book’s title, the majority of the included pieces have to do with navies in the period from the second half of the Sixteenth Century through the first third of the Nineteenth Century. This, of course, should not be surprising, given the author’s particular interest in the Royal Navy of the Eighteenth Century—an interest that dates back at least to his 1986 book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Among the seventeen articles in this volume are pieces on the naval service of the Cinque Ports; naval warfare in the Sixteenth Century; medicine, administration, and society in the Eighteenth-Century Royal Navy; navies and the Enlightenment; and commissioned officers’ careers in the Royal Navy, 1690-1815.

A fascinating article in the initial portion of the book is Roger’s “The Development of Broadside Gunnery 1450-1650.” In this piece, he takes to task Sir Julian Corbett and other naval historians of the late Victorian era for arguing that the English fleet in 1588 had sailed and fought its ships in “line ahead” and had relied upon broadside gunnery to overwhelm its enemies. After carefully sifting through the evidence, Roger concludes that while basic aspects of both concepts were known to English sailors by that date, a full understanding of their value in battle was still decades off. As he expressed it, “So in the end the English, and with them no doubt the other northern nations, discovered that in setting out to match the galley, they had arrived at an entirely unexpected destination, with a new type of warship and a new style of fighting. In material terms, they were ready for the line of battle [a specific form of line ahead] by the 1580s if not before, in that they already had ships which mounted a majority of their guns (though not usually their heaviest guns) on the broadside – but this does not mean that they had yet understood the tactical implication, clear though it might be in hindsight.” (Article III, 317 [continuous pagination is not used in this book]).

Another article of great interest is the author’s “Weather, geography and naval power in the Age of Sail.” In this piece, Roger walks carefully through the difficulties of navigation imposed on sailing ships by their utter dependence upon favorable winds, tides, and currents to make progress toward many of their intended destinations. As the author sums up the matter, “ Britain ’s eventual success [in achieving naval dominance at sea] can be explained in terms of a prolonged process of learning how to exploit the favourable, and overcome the unfavourable, aspects of the situation. None of this was inevitable, and not much of it is intelligible to the historian who ignores the real world of winds and currents, navigation and pilotage.” (Article XII, 197).

This intriguing volume containing many of Nicholas Roger’s naval history articles deserves to be placed on one’s bookshelf, alongside the several substantial studies on the history of Britain ’s rise to naval power that he has written during the past three decades. That being said, even those readers with a more than casual interest in the larger framework of naval history will find much to ponder within its pages.

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