English Naval Tactics
By Steven Alvin Jr
Published Online (2002)
Introduction: When Henry VIII began his reformation of the English Church in the 1530’s, his relations with the two most powerful Catholic rulers, Francis I of France and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, reached their low point. In 1538, these two monarchs ended their fighting with the Peace of Nice, and it appeared to England that they were the target of the two continental powers. With war threatening, Henry began to modernize England’s defences. The first line of defence was the Royal Fleet and by 1543, when war with France broke out, it was the most powerful naval squadron in Europe, its ships armed with the latest bronze and iron guns. Improvements in sailing technology made these ships vastly superior to those that Henry inherited from his father. English naval leaders were beginning to realise that there was a growing gap between advancing naval technology and current concepts of naval tactics.
England, unlike most European countries, had always used a fleet that was made up primarily of sailing ships and had never made any very extensive use of galleys. But, these ships were only used for transporting men-at-arms and longbowmen to the site of the battle. The Battle of Sluys, fought by Edward III in 1340, is typical of this kind of fighting. The introduction of artillery aboard English ships (probably during the reign of Henry V) did not change the basic tactical premise; close on the enemy as quickly as possible and board. These were the tactics that characterised Henry VIII’s first war with France in 1512-1513. A brief discussion of this war will be useful in understanding how English tactical thought evolved during Henry’s reign.