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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Kings of the Sea
Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II & the Royal Navy
By J.D. Davies
Seaforth, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84832-400-8, US $42.00 / £30.00

Reviewed by Irwin Bryan


In his introduction, the author laments the lack of mention of the Royal Navy in any biography covering the Stuart kings. Naval histories of the seventeenth century do not indicate the Stuarts were responsible for any of the navy ships built or any changes to naval policies. The majority of contemporary written records on the navy were produced and kept by Samuel Pepys, making him the most important source of naval history from this period. It is also true that in diaries and meeting minutes Pepys put his own slant on things that were discussed and decided. The purpose of Kings of the Sea is to correct the historical record and give the Stuart brothers the acclaim they rightly deserve.
The publishers have produced a lavish book, which includes many of the superb naval paintings done in the seventeenth century. These are presented throughout the text in full color on glossy paper and range in size from ¼ page to double-page spreads. There are also photographs and/or pictures of places mentioned in the text and contemporary maps.

King James I established a permanent navy able to defend the British seas. By 1623 thirty-five warships were ready. Some had received repairs and others had been built. By the end of his reign there were four Royal dockyards: Chatham, Deptford, Woolwich and Portsmouth.

The king’s son, Henry, Prince of Wales, was very involved with the navy. He visited the dockyards regularly and inspected the ships being built. He promoted voyages of exploration that would lead to the growth of trade for the kingdom. Regrettably he died of typhus at the age of eighteen.

After James I died in 1625, Charles I became King of England. He did not go to Parliament for approval on the levies to increase the royal coffers and in 1629 he dismissed Parliament to rule by himself. During this time, Charles built larger ships. In 1637 the first vessel to hold more than 100 guns was completed. Sovereign of the Seas was given many ornate and expensive decorations with representations of Roman gods and the king. Some historians say this vessel, her name, great size, and expense epitomized the arrogant, out-of-touch monarch who would be engaged in a civil war in less than five years.

Charles I attended many ship launchings, toured his fleet and dockyards, made significant changes to the Navy Board, and tried to reduce the corruption at the dockyards. He also decided how many ships would comprise a fleet and who would be their admirals and captains. His decisions on ship design and construction sometimes went against his shipwrights’ advice.

His young sons, Charles, Prince of Wales, and James, Duke of York and Albany, would have met many of the sea warriors that fought with Sir Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada. At age four, Charles was presented with a model ship, complete in her rigging, made by the shipbuilder Phineas Pett. There is every reason to believe the boys accompanied their father to the dockyards and the launching ceremonies.

During the first Civil War, Parliament controlled the navy. Young Charles commanded the king’s forces in the west. A Royalist Navy captain was able to sneak through the naval blockade and take the brothers out of England, first to Scilly Isle and then to Jersey. During the trip, Charles took the helm and began his sailing lessons. While in exile, which lasted until 1660, James also learned to sail and served in the military of France and Spain and even as Lord High Admiral of Spain.

After Oliver Cromwell’s death, different factions tried to take control of England. In the end, a new Parliament won control and declared the Stuart monarchy restored. A small fleet went to the Dutch Republic town of Scheveningen to retrieve the royal brothers and their followers. The king and Duke of York went aboard the Naseby. By nightfall her name was changed to Royal Charles. That same night other ships were also renamed to remove Cromwellian names and battles.

The ships of the Royal Navy belonged to the monarch and the naming of vessels has always been a royal prerogative. The knowledge Davies has of naval affairs and the Stuarts is clearly shown in the first of two chapters – entitled “His Majesty’s Ships I” and “His Majesty’s Ships II” – by his being able to understand and relate the reasons for naming each ship. Indeed, the author even writes about names Charles chose not to use. The same type of detail is explained regarding the ship names James, Duke of York, selected once he ascended the throne.

In the seventeenth century the science of shipbuilding was known only to the master shipwrights. The king and Duke of York acquired in-depth knowledge of the principles and designs of every construction phase and held their own when speaking to captains and shipwrights. This is so incredible that Davies provides a modern analogy. It would be as if “two consecutive prime ministers of the United Kingdom, or presidents of the United States, possessed doctorates in astrophysics.” (66)

The king and his brother, now Lord High Admiral of England and Scotland, were very involved in governing the navy. They increased the size and technical knowledge of the Navy Board, made changes to personnel, and appointed the warrant officers permanently assigned to each new vessel. James issued many revised instructions to the board and his captains, including the Articles of War and the Fighting Instructions. The king’s Privy Council decided naval policy and the compositions of fleets.

Following the Restoration, the majority of Cromwell’s captains needed to be removed from the king’s navy. But some were retained because they possessed certain qualities expected of a naval captain. Although available, most merchant ship captains did not have these qualities. This led to the appointment of “gentlemen-captains,” who had the social standing to lead but lacked knowledge in sailing and seamanship. The author’s fictional series about Matthew Quinton begins with Gentleman-Captain and illustrates the troubles an inexperienced captain can have.

To correct this deficiency, James instituted the post of “volunteers per order.” Younger sons of well-born parents were given places aboard men-of-war with the expectation that they would learn the ways of the sea before qualifying for commissions. The royal brothers cultivated relationships with many of their officers to promote the navy among his courtiers and members of the nobility. In 1677 the standards for promotion to lieutenant – including years of service and examination by the king’s flag officers and senior captains – were approved by the Board. The following year, the position of “midshipman” was established and it was decided to put young “tarpaulin” candidates together with young gentlemen to change attitudes and animosity within both groups of young officers and the more senior officers.

The text indicates this was thought to be a plan of Pepys’, or at least that’s how Pepys recorded it happened. Dr. Davies refutes why this was not the case in great detail and additionally in an appendix where he describes the way Admiralty meetings took place in the 1670s.

Detailed descriptions of the artwork in the royal chambers at Windsor and Whitehall are also given. Most depict Roman Gods paying homage to Charles II. The Sea Triumph depicts Charles II as a Roman Emperor, with his fleet in attendance, “being driven through the waters by Neptune and four sea horses.”  The translation of its Latin legend is “whose empire, ocean, and whose fame the skies alone shall bound.”(151) In a chapter named “Sovereignty of the Seas,” the origins of this ideology are detailed, as are the disputes that arose when other nations refused to salute an English squadron.

In addition to the beauty of the paintings already mentioned, each has a detailed caption. Many notes, mostly of sources, are found before a detailed index. The book also contains an appendix, a select bibliography, and suggestions for further reading.

Kings of the Sea is an excellent work detailing the role the Stuarts undertook in the design and construction of many ships and in the establishment of the infrastructure needed to support a permanent navy. This is a view of the seventeenth-century Royal Navy without battles or naval heroes as the central theme. Still the text holds your interest thanks to Dr. Davies’ conversational style, which makes it seem as if he is speaking with you instead of lecturing to you.

My reason for choosing to read this book is that I am reading my way through Davies’ fiction series, The Matthew Quinton Journals, and realized how much I do not know about this period of naval history. Kings of the Sea is the perfect book for anyone interested in learning the actual history of the times, the importance of King Charles II and James II to the Royal Navy, or Quinton’s not-too-fictional naval world

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Review Copyrighted ©2018 Irwin Bryan

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