Why I Love the 17th Century Royal Navy: Guest Post by Samuel McLean

I first started my love affair with the Royal Navy of the latter half of the seventeenth century during my second year of University. As a Christmas present that year, my friend Pippa presented me with Arthur Herman’s To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World.

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This book fascinated me, and inspired many of the essays I wrote over the remaining years of my undergraduate degree, especially after I switched my degree program from computer science to history. Although it could not be said to be truly Academic history, that book more than anything else is responsible for the questions and interests that have defined my current doctoral research on the Royal Navy following the Restoration of King Charles II. I’d like to thank Andrea for the chance to talk about why I love this period, and really about why I do what I do.

Samuel Pepys. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

I’ve always been the type of person who has read books multiple times, but I don’t think I’ve read any individual section of any book more times than I read the chapter called “Mr Pepys’ Navy.” I loved the idea that a single man, a relatively insignificant person otherwise, could be so influential on what Herman presented as the reasons for the Royal Navy’s success during the next few centuries. Of course, now that I’ve put several years of study into the subject I realize that while Pepys was important, he was only one of several influential people who had a role in the Royal Navy’s development as a professional organization. Despite that, Pepys as a person has remained central to my fascination and love for the 17th century. In the fifth and final year of my undergraduate studies, I took a honours level course on biography, the largest aspect of which was a biographical essay on a historical person. For me, the choice was always to be Samuel Pepys. When I had heard about the course a year previous from the professor who would be teaching it, I had told her at that point that not only would I be registered in the course, that I would be writing about Pepys. Luckily, my University library had a large number of books on Pepys so that I didn’t have to rely on the notoriously incomplete Braybrooke edition of the diary. I was able to learn so much about Samuel Pepys that I couldn’t have gotten from the diary myself, and I was dragged into the world of 1660s London. Especially interesting to me was a book on the subject of the foods and beverages that Pepys discussed in his diary.

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Although Pepys provides us with a fantastic window into London, I felt a very strong connection with him because he possessed a great curiosity about the world about him. Pepys knew that the world wasn’t just about experience the final products but rather it was also about creative acts and the performance of skills. As a person who loves to cook, to perform music, to write, and to make things this deeply resonated with me. Even from the beginning, I sensed that Pepys was a sort of kindred spirit, despite my poor understanding of him as a man, or of his world. Samuel Pepys is a gift who keeps on giving, and as my questions and interests have become more complex so have the perspectives that Samuel Pepys has provided.

Catherine of Braganza. Studio of Jacob Huysmans. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

The second focus for my love of the Seventeenth century is the sense that it as truly an important pivot in the development of the Royal Navy as an organization, but also the English State, and to be honest the world. On the one hand at the beginning of the century England was still in many ways a medieval state. From the role of the monarch to the processes for the creation of military forces to the forms of Art and music there was a clear sense not of England lagging behind, because I feel that any such comparison are ahistorical, but rather of a nation that hadn’t faced the same pressures as the continental European nations. But that would all change, and what really intrigues me is that although some historians would argue that England simply undergo the same development processes as for example France, Germany and the Netherlands, that I believe instead the peculiarly English circumstances provided a particularly complex set of developments. For example, I particularly love that one of the major vectors for the introduction of the Baroque to England was through Queen Catherine of Braganza’s private Royal Chapel, that was staffed first by Portuguese, then by Italian priest-musicians who apparently were better suited to England’s climate.

For the Navy and England’s military forces, it was an important tipping point in the institutional development and the comparison between them provides a real insight into how complex the development of the English nation-state truly was. The description of England as a late-medieval state is perhaps best suited to the description of English military over the seventeenth century. To begin with, I’ve learned that the twentieth century implications around the terms ‘Navy’ and ‘Army’ don’t apply, at least before Wars of the Three Kingdoms. For one thing, there was not “the” Navy, but rather a succession of them, each of which could be considered “a” Navy.  I find it fascinating that the entity or institution that in the 21st century is the Royal Navy was the result of something new that was created by the 1661 Navy Act, and inherited or subsumed the material aspects of Commonwealth’s fleet but was in many ways an entirely new entity, a new institution that was for the first time a permanent Navy. The transition from the fleet’s support of the person of the monarch at the restoration of Charles II, to a Navy that inherently belonged to the State, and the Head of State was not one process that reflected the emergence of a modern state, but rather an entire set of processes that reflected developments in the Navy and the English state as a whole, as well as the influence of specific individuals. This complexity occurred within a single entity, and as a result the shape and identity of that entity was repeatedly defined and refined. On the other hand, there was no single institution for the English Army, but instead there remained a modified version of the medieval system of raising an army, albeit modified so that the raised forces were organized as regiments. It’s fascinating that despite the shared personnel in both the Navy and the Regiments, and the shared pressures that influenced the branches of the English State that the land and sea forces could develop in such different fashions, and with different influences yet have so many parallels in those development processes.

An English Vessel and Dutch Ships Becalmed about 1660, Willem van de Velde. The National Gallery, London.

An English Vessel and Dutch Ships Becalmed about 1660, Willem van de Velde. The National Gallery, London.

The third reason for my love of this period is that the entity that would become today’s Royal Navy was for much of its early existence a relatively undefined and therefore highly varied organization. So many things that we today take for granted, and use to define the very existence of the Royal Navy and its professional communities did not exist until well into the later decades of the seventeenth century, if not the middle of the eighteenth century. For example, the Royal Navy didn’t have any defined professional standards until 1676 and 1677, when the first standards for promotion to Lieutenant were defined. On top of that, Royal Navy Officer uniforms were not officially designed until the 1740s. So much of what the Royal Navy was, materially and especially in terms of institutional identity was yet undefined, but the foundations for the development of that identity was laid throughout the reigns of King Charles I, and King Charles II.

King Charles II by Unknown artist. Image: The National Portrait Gallery, London.

As a result, The Royal Navy began as a collection of several different communities, with different social and professional backgrounds, and varying goals, ideals and methods. The processes through which that complexity came together in messy and unpredictable ways to form a new and different organization, profession and most interesting to me, identity. To paraphrase Mike Braddick, the Royal Navy was not created or developed to fit with some ambitious master plan, but rather developed as a result of actions taken to resolve problems. Of course, the result that occurred wasn’t necessarily what was intended. Although we know how the Royal Navy did develop, discussing what else could have happened but didn’t is just as important because those questions force us to look at the difference between what actually happened, and what was intended to happen. It is these questions, and the complex answers that really drives my passion for the Royal Navy in the Seventeenth Century.

Samuel McLean is a PhD student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where his doctoral research examines the creation and development of the Royal Navy and Royal Navy Officer Profession, 1660-1749. Other current projects include a series of podcasts entitled “Making History” that will focus on the challenges and changes facing modern and future practitioners of history, and the soon to be launched BritishNavalHistory.com. Sam, is a strong proponent of the academic uses of social media, and is found on Twitter @Canadian_Errant.

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Hear ye! One thought — so far — on “Why I Love the 17th Century Royal Navy: Guest Post by Samuel McLean”:

  1. mike68ivydene

    Fascinating article, Sam. Stirred up my own interests in naval history. Looking forward to seeing your new website when it is up and running. Please drop me an e mail when it is ready, thanks!
    Regards, Mike Burt..

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