Royal Navy (history)

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The Royal Navy is proud of its prestige. It takes precedence over both the Army and the Royal Air Force as 'The Senior Service': a standing (permanent) force has been maintained at sea since the time of the Tudors, while a standing army did not come into being until Parliament created the New Model Army during the Civil War. Following the Restoration, the idea of a permanent army was regarded with such suspicion that there was none, other than a few ad hoc units, until the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745. (It remains true that, under the Bill of Rights of 1689, Parliament has to vote annually to continue the existence of the British (not 'the Royal') Army.) The Royal Air Force had to wait until the technological advances of the twentieth century, and was actually formed (out of the Royal Flying Corps of the Army and the Royal Naval Air Service) in 1918.

  • It is sometimes claimed that the Royal Navy was founded by Alfred 'the Great', 'the father of the navy' (he raised a fighting fleet to defend against the Danes in 897); but its continuous existence is more authoritatively dated to the reign of Henry VII, who built ships designed for combat, and Henry VIII, who established the Council of the Marine in 1546, later to become the Navy Board, to administer the affairs of the Admiralty (the office of the Lord High Admiral). In this guise, the Navy achieved its first great victory in the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, belonging to the then pre-eminent naval nation in Europe. In the next century, the navy (in the time of the Protectorate) overtook the Dutch, who had become the most powerful nation at sea, with the defeats of Tromp at the battles of Portland, the Gabbard. and the Texel (1652-3) by Blake and (General) Monck.
  • Following that, the navy grew to be the largest in the world by the end of the eighteenth century, safeguarding (and responding to the needs of) the British empire. In 1743, Anson even captured a Spanish treasure galleon (the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, carrying 1,313,843 pieces of eight and 35,682 ounces of virgin silver) off Cape Espiritu Santo, in the Philippines (Pacific Ocean).
  • During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the Royal Navy was instrumental in developing the conditions in which the army could finally defeat the enemy at the battle of Waterloo (1815): a continuous blockade of Europe, and a crushing victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar (1805) gave Britain unparalleled freedom on the seas, and a reputation as a formidable fighting force. Rodger, vol. 2 (2004) makes a convincing case that the demands of constructing such a huge force of technologically advanced vessels and maintaining them at sea, sometimes for three years and more, were causally connected with the Industrial Revolution.
  • The Royal Navy's reputation as the best navy helped keep the peace on the high seas for the rest of the nineteenth century. The development of steam-turbine-powered, armour-plated battleships with big-gun armament in the prototype H.M.S. Dreadnought (1906) increased the respect in which the navy was held, although it also stimulated an arms race with Germany. In 1916, at the battle of Jutland, although the German High Seas Fleet was not defeated, it returned to port and stayed there till the end of the First World War, which justified the Royal Navy's strategic importance. The Royal Navy remained the largest navy in the world until overtaken by the United States Navy during the Second World War. In both World Wars, it distinguished itself in many theatres of war, and by its convoying system and skills maintained the imports and trade that allowed Britain to survive, particularly the menace of U-boat warfare in the Battle of the Atlantic (1940-1945). Nowadays, its power is diminished, although as it manages Britain's nuclear deterrent, it has an unimaginable capacity for destruction.